First responders. Emergency personnel. Heroes. They go by many names, but most everyone knows whom you’re talking about when you mention them – the brave men and women who leap into action when disaster strikes.
What’s less known, though, is that there is a link in the emergency response chain that’s every bit as critical as firefighters, police officers, and paramedics: Emergency dispatchers – the people who pick up the phone when you dial 9-1-1. The true first responder.
“9-1-1 dispatchers help pull together all the different agencies that might need to respond during an emergency,” said Heidi Meyer, program coordinator for the Emergency Dispatch Services program at Portland Community College. “They also play a key role in terms of calming someone down and making sure that emergency responders have as much information as possible.”
Thanks to a new, state-of-the-art simulation lab at PCC’s Cascade Campus – where the program is based – Emergency Dispatch Services students can train in more realistic conditions than ever before. The new lab – the only one of its kind in the nation – is a fully integrated, Internet-based simulation in which students receive emergency calls and respond to them in real time while instructors listen in, Meyer said. The lab can also be used to run complex, cross-disciplinary simulations with PCC’s other emergency services programs, such as Fire Protection Technology, Emergency Medical Services, and Criminal Justice.
The lab helps give students a taste of what can be extremely demanding on-the-job conditions. Students receive a simulated 9-1-1 call while logged into a workstation very similar to those used by professional dispatchers, and then must respond to the call as if it were an actual emergency. Dispatchers must evaluate the situation, decide what type – or types – of emergency response is needed, and even counsel callers who are themselves injured or in danger.
“This is exactly what our students will face in their on-the-job training, and very much like what they will face in a real-life situation,” said Kelly Sharp, an instructor in the program and a dispatcher with Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency, the emergency response agency for Southwest Washington state. “It’s very much a real-world simulation.”
As of the fall of 2013, the Emergency Dispatch Services program morphed into two tracks. One track – 9-1-1 Dispatcher — will follow the traditional 9-1-1 emergency dispatcher route, while the program’s new track – Service Dispatcher — will train students to be non-emergency dispatchers, a field which, as it turns out, is in growing demand. Every company or organization that fields a fleet of vehicles – think delivery trucks, for example, or taxicabs – could use the services of a skilled dispatcher. Both tracks offer one-year (three college terms) professional certificates.
The sim lab is the latest addition to a program that has historically enjoyed tremendous success both in terms of the level of preparation it imparts to its students, as well as their job placement rate after completion. Currently about 80 percent of PCC 9-1-1 program job seeking graduates are gainfully employed. Meyer said that in general, newly-hired 9-1-1 dispatchers wash out at a rate of about 50 percent; the skills they learn in the program helps to dramatically reduces that number because students obtain the tools they need to successfully complete training. What’s more, students who complete the program can count it as one year’s worth of on-the-job experience.
During their studies, students are immersed in a fictional town, “Pleasantville,” that has evolved over the years along with the program itself. A map of the city hangs on the wall, complete with street names and geographical features. Pleasantville has its own set of policies and procedures that govern a dispatcher’s response to a given (fictitious) emergency.
“This is their first job,” Meyer said of her students’ stint in Pleasantville.
When an emergency goes down in Pleasantville – a fire, for example – Meyer’s students must respond as if it’s the real thing. They have to direct firefighters to the scene of the fire as quickly as possible, taking into account factors like traffic, construction, and weather.
“I’m really drawn to the excitement,” said Hallie Turpin, a student in the dispatch program. “I enjoy taking the calls in the sim lab and really getting down to it.”
Turpin enrolled in the program when she took a course on careers in the health care field. The dispatch program appealed to both her love of technology and her desire to help others.
“It’s a great program, and I’m really excited about going to work,” she said. “All of us [in the program] are really well-prepared, and the idea of helping people is really attractive to me.”
Ray Mayfield found his way to the dispatch program after he left the U.S. Marines. He spent two tours of duty in Iraq as a radio operator and wanted to do something similar as a civilian, preferably in law enforcement.
“I learned to be a good communicator in the Marines,” he said, “and I wanted to put those skills to use helping people now that I’m out.”
“Plus,” he added, laughing, “I enjoy the adrenaline.”