Tina Larson, 41, sat by herself, engrossed in a game on her cell phone, not thinking or talking about a tragic phone call she received only minutes prior.
Larson had spoken with someone who walked in on a family member’s suicide. A hard call for anyone to take, but one Larson, a Chula Vista Police Department 911 dispatcher, was signed up for.
“Once you hear those emotions on the other side of the phone you just want to be able to help those people,” she said. “Give them a hug, and you can’t.”
What the 15-year-veteran can now do, however, is take a moment for herself, comforted by a newly-designed space which includes refurbished blue couches donated by Goodwill San Diego and a wall decorated with images of dispatchers’ dogs.
The space was brought to life by the Chula Vista Employment Engagement Committee, which revamped the buildings ‘decompression room,’ and added a common area for dispatchers to go and wind down.
“They brought in this beautiful furniture and nice setting for us so now we can actually go down the hall – we’re still in dispatch – but we can go down the hall and have this living room setting to just take a break, take a moment, collect our thoughts if we had a bad call and then go back out on the floor,” Larson said.
Studies have shown that being a 911 dispatcher is one of the more stressful jobs someone can have, and, according to Larson, includes answering around 250 phone calls a day.
The day of a dispatcher is also far from your ordinary nine-to-five job, with the average shift running between 10 and 12-and-a-half hours. The threat of emergency constantly looms, so dispatchers are always on-call.
“I don’t think people know that we don’t get a break,” Larson said. “It’s not like we can leave the building, can’t really leave the room because were safety dispatchers so if something happens we have to run back in and plug in and take those 911 calls.”
There was, in fact, a space designed for dispatchers to go unwind, a small backroom, but, according to Melanie Culuko, the head of the EEC, was not being utilized.
“Myself and a couple of other committee members went over and looked at the space and it was really being used like a storage closet, for lack of a better term,” Culuko said.
What Culuko also found was an opportunity to make a difference, discovering an unused space which she envisioned could become something more.
“Right outside the decompression room was this large space that wasn’t really being used, it didn’t have a purpose,” Culuko said. “So, the committee decided well let’s make over the decompression room but then also let’s give them makeover this larger space and give them a place that feels at home and comfortable.”
The EEC began working on the room in November and had the space finished by January, with an official unveiling held on Feb. 20.
“It didn’t take us long at all,” Culuko said. “The talent that we have in our employment engagement committee… they just had ideas and they just hit the ground running, so it really happened pretty quickly.”
Prior to the new room, dispatchers had been using a variety of ways to attempt to destress, including putting up positive affirmations and utilizing stress-relief devices, according to Culuko.
CVPD Lieutenant Don Redmond oversees the dispatch unit, and said it is critical for employees handling difficult calls to have a place to destress.
“It’s huge for us on this end,” he said. “If they can’t have that time to decompress after these calls they wouldn’t last very long in this profession.”