Unless someone flags down a cop on the street or gets pulled over for a traffic violation, a citizen's first contact with law enforcement is usually speaking to a dispatcher on the telephone. That's why it's important to have professional, competent, dedicated, and calm people in that spot.
When a police officer is calling for cover, "no delay," or reporting he or she is being fired on, the same type of dispatcher is needed.
Back in the old days when a cop was injured and couldn’t work in a patrol car, he would pull light duty in the communications center. The walking wounded would answer the phones and occasionally handle the radio when the regular dispatcher took a break. Dispatching is easy, right?
Because of a basketball injury while playing for the police team I was confined to inside duties for about six months. While I may have taken them for granted before, I came to appreciate dispatchers during the recovery period.
I started off working graveyard shift as the second person on the phones. One dispatcher picked up the first call. The other dispatched cars and took the second call. (There were only two dispatchers.) As a light duty person, I now took the second call.
When things were slow, it was a piece of cake.
After a few months my cast came off and I worked 4 p.m. to midnight. That was a baptism by fire. This is where my appreciation of dispatchers blossomed.
Busy times were tumultuous when all the phone lines lit up and officers jockeyed for air time during an emergency. When I went back to field duty I never complained about a dispatcher again.
Recently I spent a few hours in the dispatch center in the new station. I walked into a different world. Instead of two dispatchers, there are five. The number of officers has tripled since I dispatched and officers now go to a different frequency to run Department of Motor Vehicle searches and other computer requests. Because of the headsets the dispatchers wear, the room is no longer filled with loud broadcasts.
It was a busy night with a report of a dead body in Scripps Hospital’s parking lot. The person wasn’t really dead, only needing to get to the Emergency Room. I was lucky enough to pull a shift with three of the most experienced workers, Pattie McCleskey Holian, Millie Osuna, and Tina Jones, excellent veterans all.
In the old days, the dispatchers would attend roll call. Now, few dispatchers can even match a face with the names of the field officers. The cops leave roll call, get in their cars and go in service. They are merely a name and an ID number on a computer screen. In my day, after work, there would be impromptu social gatherings where the cops and dispatchers would meet for food, drink and stories. Not today. They seldom have shift change parties every four months like we did.
It appears that the “family concept” has been traded in for a more formal environment. Computers have taken over for hand written Activity Cards that would indicate when a call was received, dispatched, the time the officer arrived, when he cleared, and the disposition of the call. Today’s system is more efficient.
Basinski is a true-crime author and will be moderating a panel discussion at the Orange County spring book program April 14. The event is at University of California Irvine.