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At Bloomington's 911 dispatch center, helping others makes the tough days worth it

Jordan Mead
Telecommunicators at work in the Bloomington Communications Center at Bloomington Police Department.

The Bloomington Communications Center is the first dispatch center in Illinois to earn accreditation from the International Academy of Emergency Dispatch in part for its handling of calls with diligence and respect. That's not an easy thing to do in the middle of a crisis.

No day is the same for telecommunicators handling 911 calls. Working in dispatch means one has to be prepared for anything.

City of Bloomington Telecommunicator and Trainer Bobbie Jo Smith says when the phone rings, you have to separate regular life from work.

“We’re here to help somebody in some of the most difficult times of their life. So, no matter what’s going on in our personal lives, we have to be there for them, and we just put everything else in the background to help our caller out," Smith said.

911 telecommunicator Tabby McCall said the one thing people want to hear from a dispatcher is that they understand the situation. She said it is easy for callers to panic if a telecommunicator does not listen intently and respond quickly.

“You really learn a lot of patience and how to listen to people and how to talk to people. I think the most important thing, especially when people are in crisis, is just the way you can communicate with them and if you can get them to trust you in a matter of seconds, it really changes everything.”

Bloomington Communications Center supervisor David Debolt said it can go from nobody calling to everybody having emergencies all at once, and so everyone must come to work ready each day.

“A lot of people only call 911 once or twice for serious emergencies in their life. We sometimes take phone calls multiple times a day of the worst day of somebody’s life.”

Working through the tough days

Many of the phone calls telecommunicators regularly handle can be traumatic.

Debolt, McCall and Smith all say the environment in the call center is supportive when dealing with tough phone calls. There are calls that dispatchers say to this day stick with them.

While mentally separating difficult days on the job is needed for dispatch, McCall says there are some times when you cannot shake off what happened that day, and you have to learn to work through it.

“It’s always traumatizing anytime you have any sort of suicide or cardiac arrest. Anything like that is always really hard, but it really is just a matter of you focusing on what you know to do in those situations. Every call, although some are more severe than others, have to be treated the same. You have to keep yourself calm in order to get through the protocols.”

Smith says phone calls involving children always stand out to her.

“There’s been phone calls where a child was choking and helping their dad help the child, and so that’s always nice when we can get a good outcome. There’s been some sad cases as well that tend to stick with you.”

Working in dispatch requires long hours and sometimes overnight shifts on top of being ready for any kind of difficult phone call.

Debolt says having supportive family members and unity as a staff is key when handling the demands of working in dispatch. McCall says her brother is a Bloomington Police officer, and she has him to talk to as she processes the more difficult days working in dispatch.

“We’ve got those support structures," Debolt said. "We’ve got a great environment in our center where everybody is really supportive of one another and realizes when somebody’s just taken a very tough call. everybody will fill in for that person so they can get some air.”

For these telecommunicators, helping citizens makes the demands of working in dispatch worth it.

“It’s really gratifying to be able to be in the position to help people," Debolt said. "Even if they just have a flat tire and they need somebody to stand by while their tow truck is in route to getting them an ambulance if their family member is having a medical emergency, it’s really gratifying to be that person to be relied upon to get them help.”

The International Academy of Emergency Dispatch recently certified the Bloomington Communications Center as the world's 25th Emergency Police Dispatch (EPD) Accredited Center of Excellence (ACE). As part of that, the Bloomington Communications Center was asked to serve as a mentor for other agencies hoping to become accredited.

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