9-1-1: Emergency Call Takers

"9-1-1: What is the address of the emergency?" At the end of the line, a frantic female caller gives her location, then explains that her friend is having a seizure. Lisa Hayes, 33, working the 9-1-1 call taker desk, immediately punches up the appropriate emergency response script on a computer screen above her desk and asks the pertinent protocol questions, typing in the answers as the caller responds. "How old is she?"

"22," the friend answers.

"Is she awake?"


"Is she breathing?" The friend says yes.

"Is she pregnant?"


Unbeknownst to the caller, Hayes has already sent (and continues to send) details about the emergency to the Dane Co. Sheriff's department dispatcher sitting behind her, who immediately calls it out it to authorities. Following a detailed script on her computer for dealing with seizures, Hayes continues to monitor the condition of the victim, calmly instructing the caller on what to do and assuring her that help is on the way. She stays on the line until an officer arrives on the scene.

It's just another night in the Dane County Communications Center (DCCC), more casually known as the 9-1-1 Center. What happens to the young woman will remain a mystery to Hayes, for rarely do call takers or dispatchers hear the end result of their actions.

Hayes, 33, mother of two young children, has worked in the 9-1-1 center for nearly seven years. Unlike many in her capacity, she had no former police or emergency experience prior to applying for the position. "I was in computer resale sales," she said, "and retail before that." But many years ago, when her previous company failed and she was laid off just two weeks prior to Christmas, she vowed never to be in that position again. On a whim, she applied for the public safety position and now, as part of the AFSCME union, she has a very stable job with "great" county benefits.

"We pay people very well," said Gary Bell, operations manager at the DCCC, admitting though, that "money only goes so far." Employees earn a starting salary of $19.36 per hour plus overtime, more common these days due to a 17% turnover rate. Six shifts keep the center manned 24-hours a day, and employees work a rotating schedule, with four days on and two days off. Weekends or holidays off are rare, and a coveted day shift may be even rarer. "It can be hard on a marriage," Hayes admits.

DCCC trainees (there are 10, currently) receive eight weeks of classroom training followed by an additional eight weeks of supervised on-the-job training. Employees must be prepared to calmly deal with extremely stressful situations in highly charged situations. That stress is the biggest drawback to the job, according to Bell. "These people don't live as long as normal people. There's a high risk for early death."

Not surprisingly, burnout is high. "It takes about two years to feel comfortable in the role," Bell says, adding that he asks for a two-year commitment from trainees. Most of the turnover he sees occurs after three to five years.

Back in the control center, Hayes' phone rings again. "9-1-1: What's the address of the emergency?" she asks. A Madison woman at the end of the line just discovered her Mercedes was broken into and her purse was stolen. She pleads for Hayes to send an officer right away. Hayes asks if the caller saw the perpetrator. "No," the woman replies.

"Do you have more than $2,500 damage?"

"I don't know, probably not."

In this situation, Hayes offers the caller a phone number where she can self-report the crime. Incredulous, the woman puts her adult daughter on the phone for back-up, but Hayes explains that since she is not an employee of the Madison police department, she can only relay the department's policy.

For three hours, calls come in: A lone female employee at an area convenience store is concerned about a mysterious stranger lurking in the parking lot; a terrified woman calls because her estranged husband has returned home despite the restraining order filed against him; there's a wrong number from a woman hoping to call India but misdialing. Regardless of the degree of emergency, all calls are recorded, and names and addresses are taken.

Bell says 9-1-1 employees must be thick-skinned, "because everything doesn't turn out rosy." Multi-tasking is essential. "You must be able to have a conversation, stop in the middle to take a call and give instructions to save a baby, or take a fire call, and then get back to the original conversation."

The DCCC provides services to 84 different agencies and handles all cell phone calls in the area. It also handles the emergency alert system, tornado sirens, Amber Alerts, and provides Reverse 9-1-1. Communities with their own police departments, such as Middleton, Fitchburg, Monona, Sun Prairie, the UW or Capitol Police, dispatch their own calls.

The soon-to-be-expanded DCCC nerve center is equipped with 12 work stations, including two city of Madison dispatchers who transmit to separate sides of the city. There are also two Sheriff's department dispatchers and two fire and rescue dispatchers. Two additional people conduct records checks, verifying license plate numbers or checking a database for names called in by emergency personnel.

Incoming 9-1-1 calls are routed automatically to the next available call taker. The computer system immediately indicates whether a call is from a landline (pinpointing a specific address) or from a cell phone.

Suprisingly, even with the latest technology, determining the location of a cell phone call is difficult, which is why verbal communication is so critical, according to Chas Klauer, communication supervisor. "For the fastest response, use a landline," he advises, "then we can lock you in." Unfortunately, many people with cell phones have opted to discontinue home landline service.

When someone dials 9-1-1 from a cell phone, the system automatically assigns one of three codes to the call: "Phase zero" means the phone is probably a track phone, or an older, analog phone. If the caller cannot verbally state their location, "it may take up to 25 minutes for us to find a stage-zero caller," Klauer said. "Phase one" means the system has identified which tower the call came from, mapping a narrower swath toward discovery. "Phase two" indicates a strong signal capable of locating a caller within several blocks and sometimes several yards. The problem, Bell says, is that "we have no idea whether, when, or why a particular cell phone signal is accurate or inaccurate."

Case in point: Hayes receives an incoming phase zero cell phone call with an immediate hang up. She punches up the coordinates of the call as best she can, identifies coordinates on a map, and sends an instant note to dispatch. "This could be kids playing with a phone," she explains, "it could be someone misdialing, or it could be someone who truly needs help. We just don't know." It will be difficult for an officer to find this caller's location, but when the same call comes in a few minutes later, with another hang up matching the same coordinates, she notifies dispatch again.

Hayes says a good day is when she can help deliver a baby, or provide successful CPR instruction. An ideal work day, she says, is eight hours long, with four hours spent dispatching calls and four hours fielding calls. Lately though, 12-hour shifts are more common while the new recruits are trained.

Hayes loves the variety of the job, but admits it can also be very difficult. Earlier in the day, for example, she received a call from two young boys who found their mother (probably dead) in a bedroom, necessitating Hayes to instruct the oldest of the two to administer CPR until help arrived. "That is just so difficult," she says. "I just think of my two kids …." She pauses.

"Not everyone can do this day in and day out," she continues. "When I'm not here, I don't watch television or read the news. Nothing. I love what I do, but if I won the lottery tomorrow, I'd be home with my kids."

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