Answering the Call
By Greg Schaber
The Hamilton County Communications Center is quiet. For now. It’s 9:00 p.m., the parking lot is far from full and the glass-fronted lobby is empty. Inside, Chris Ferguson, Bob George, Larry Babel and about a dozen others sit quietly in a large, cream-colored room baffled with beige curtains. A few are on the phone. Others just sit. And wait.
“When you think about it,” says Babel, “we sit here and wait for something ugly to happen.”
Something ugly usually happens, too. When it does, Ferguson, George and Babel are the first line of defense. The trio are the anonymous voices on the other end of the phone who receive the 911 calls and then dispatch reports to about 40 police, fire and medical agencies throughout the southwestern Ohio county. About 75,000 calls ring through the dispatch center annually.
“We’re the guys no one sees or hears or knows about,” Ferguson says. “Nobody knows what we do or how we do it. They just know we’re here if they call.”
In an era when police, firefighters and other emergency workers have become national heroes, 911 dispatchers—a critical cog in the emergency-response wheel—have gone largely unnoticed. Like most in their line of work, though, Ferguson, George and Babel have long since gotten used to the anonymity of their jobs. Still, there’s a touch of pride in their voices when they talk about the importance of their work and the kind of people it takes to do it.
“It does require a special kind of person,” says Babel, a 21-year dispatch veteran who’s now a watch commander. “People don’t call here when things are going well. And ours is a dead-end business. Newer people struggle with that sometimes. Police and firemen have the ability to interact and make things positive out of a situation. Closure to us is dispatching units to the scene.”
By comparison, Ferguson is a relative newcomer, starting four and a half years ago. A 1991 communications major, Ferguson began with six months of training in which he learned how to operate the computers, run searches, answer the phones, make radio dispatches, sharpen his knowledge of area geography, and memorize a laundry list of police, fire and EMS signals.
He has been on the 6:00 p.m.-2:00 a.m. power shift for the past three years, working four days on—two days answering phones and two days at the dispatch radio—then two days off. That translates into lots of weekends and holidays working at a job that can lull you to sleep one minute, then test the limits of your psychological endurance the next.
“The best part of it is when you legitimately get to help somebody who needs help,” he says. “The most frustrating thing is when somebody dies.”
As might be expected, different people handle the demands differently. Some exercise, some go out together after work, some use humor, some rely on faith. For extremely rough situations, such as lengthy, emotional calls involving a death, the county offers counseling via a critical incident stress management program.
If there’s such a thing as the perfect dispatcher personality, Ferguson’s vote goes to George, a 1978 graduate. A quiet, devout man with a calm, reassuring demeanor on and off the phone, the 15-year veteran tries to remain philosophical in all situations. But it can be tough. He’s still bothered by a recent incident when he took a call from a mother whose infant daughter wasn’t breathing. George read her the infant CPR instructions. The child revived for a time, but died later at the hospital.
“Sometimes you don’t know God’s will,” he says. “You try not to let it get to you, but you don’t want to be impersonal to it. You try to treat these people as if it’s your family calling in. What if it was me, you know?”
Fortunately, the job also has its lighter moments. George, for instance, once got a frantic call from a man who had a bee fly up his shorts. And Ferguson remembers a call from a lady who dialed 911 to request a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call.
“You’re going to be there anyway, aren’t you?” she asked.
Then there was the caller who demanded to see the police because, she claimed, a pizza chain delivered the wrong pizza and charged her too much for it. In polite terms, Ferguson informed the woman that hers was not an emergency situation.
“She was a little irate,” he says. But most important of all, there are the triumphs when childbirth instructions read over the phone bring a baby into the world or when the CPR instructions save a life. Ferguson recalls such a save. A man called, saying his wife wasn’t breathing. Ferguson walked the man through CPR, and the woman survived.
“It brought a smile to my face,” he says. “That made me think ‘It’s worth doing it.’ ”
Ultimately, Ferguson says, being a dispatcher is sort of an extension of the Jesuit service mission emphasized back in college. George agrees.
“I’ve never really looked at this job as ‘I’m doing this for the money,’ ” he says. “You do it for the service.”