Telecommunicators are essential to keep communities safe, and National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week (April 9-15, 2023) recognized them for their important work.
As part of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s Police Department, supervisor Katlyn Fry and dispatcher Joan Nevin are part of a team that keeps both the community surrounding CPN and law enforcement safe. They are also charged with coordinating communication among Pottawatomie County’s numerous law enforcement professionals, from police departments to sheriff’s deputies to ambulance service.
The team also includes Macyn Kinkade, Kayla Dixon, Maria Dean, Brittany Kelley, Kaleb Simons, Brian Scott and Megan Schmitt.
While the CPN Police Department is focused on protecting the 900-square mile Tribal jurisdictional boundary, cross-deputization agreements with other law enforcement agencies enable CPN police to have jurisdiction in Pottawatomie County. These agreements became common in Oklahoma in the 1990s as tribal nations began to assert their sovereignty. As a result, CPN officers are also called to respond to mutual aid requests within Pottawatomie County.
The telecommunications office coordinates dispatch for 26 various agencies.
“We are the voice you hear on the phone when you dial 911,” Fry said.
Fry has been working in telecommunications for approximately eight years. Nevin, originally from Minnesota, has been on the job for 10 years.
“A lot of times when people call in, they’re stressed out. We are the ones to calm them down so we can get the information so we’re not sending our officers in blind. They are family, and we treat them as such. So, if something were to happen, that hits us hard,” Fry said.
Coordinating communication between more than two dozen agencies is not easy. However, they both understand what is at stake in each call.
“We are the coordinators of the chaos,” Nevin said. “She and I are working together. One of us is getting (the fire department) started, getting the ambulance started, one is getting the officer started. It’s a matter of coordinating everybody, getting all these different agencies involved and everybody knowing what’s going on. We’re getting everybody there as quickly as possible.”
Relaying valuable information
Fry compares it to trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle, but all the pieces are simultaneously moving. Often, callers may not have all the information dispatch might need, such as street addresses or highway mile markers. It’s up to Fry and Nevin to ask the right questions to determine the exact location and which agency should be sent to the scene.
Fry urges people to be aware of their surroundings when driving. Paying attention to mile markers, or even local landmarks, can be helpful to dispatch personnel when a street address is unavailable.
They understand that many of the people who call 911 are stressed, fearful or panicked. It is not unusual for someone calling from their own home to forget their address. They urge everyone to have their home address in a place where they can quickly locate it and read it to dispatch.
“That’s why I tell people, ‘Write it down and stick it on your kitchen counter,’ because they panic and they don’t know where they are,” Nevin said.
Fry said children are often told they need to call 911 in an emergency, but they are unprepared for the dispatchers’ questions. Parents should also share where their important information is located so children will be able to summon help in an emergency.
“Definitely know your phone number when you’re calling in. Be prepared to be asked all these questions: Who, what, when, where, why. We’re going to ask if there were weapons (involved),” Fry said.
“We’ll ask, ‘What are they wearing? Which direction did they go? What were they driving?’” Nevin added. “Officers will ask us these questions, and that’s why we have to ask. ‘Did they have a hat on? Do they have long hair? Short hair?’”
Fry said vehicle descriptions, including make, model, color and tag number, are also helpful.
Sometimes the most difficult part of their job is wondering about the ultimate outcome of a call. Often, they do not hear until hours later how the call was resolved. Occasionally, they never learn of the outcome, Fry said.
Translating chaos into help
They wish more people understood that their job involves “translating chaos” and to remain as calm as possible when calling 911.
“We are doing our absolute best to help, so try not to yell at the person answering the call,” Fry said. “Please answer our questions the best you can, and don’t hang up. It will only delay us getting the help you need.”
They agree that medical emergencies can be especially harrowing, both for the person calling and for the telecommunicators.
Dispatchers work in tandem, Nevin said. While a caller may only hear one voice on the telephone, it is likely that the other dispatcher is helping to direct emergency response as well.
“We’re always listening to each other. So, if I’m saying, ‘There’s a baby not breathing,’ she just heard me, and she immediately jumps in and she’s starting help right away. While I’m still getting information, she can automatically see where (help is needed) and start units,” Nevin said.
Dealing with stress
They often deal with short-tempered callers, and they rely on each other’s sense of humor to stay calm despite the anxious moments that come with the job.
“At the end of the day, we do have to find some humor. We’ve got to make the best of each situation,” Fry said.
They both try not to take an especially stressful day home to family and try to help each other decompress before the workday ends.
Following a difficult call, it is not unusual for other telecommunications offices to call the staff at CPN and offer support — something they both appreciate about their job.
“When we take a bad call, our officers know, and they’ll come in and check on us,” Fry said.
Nevin said following the end of a particularly tough shift, the officers stopped by to check on her, and many offered a supportive hug.
They both appreciate the moments when an event concludes, and everyone involved is safe.
Offering community support
They occasionally get to know the people who often call 911 for help.
“We do care. A lot of people, they don’t realize,” the connections that dispatchers make with community members over the phone, Fry said.
Nevin said elderly citizens call, usually for help after they’ve experienced a fall. Over time, she has spoken to family members, getting to know them better. They both worry how their regular callers are doing.
Nevin said one caller in particular has connected with dispatchers and local law enforcement through his frequent calls for assistance. Occasionally, officers will stop by his house to make sure everything is okay.
“They may not see us, but they talk to us all the time. We care,” Fry said.
Sometimes after a traumatic call involving a child, the dispatchers may send the child a toy.
“There was an incident with a child at a school, and we sent a teddy bear to her. We just wanted to make sure she was okay. It was a scary situation,” Fry said.
Accidental calls happen
They’ve experienced countless accidental calls to 911, either from a cellphone in someone’s pocket or a curious child. They urge these accidental callers not to hang up. They prefer the caller stay on the line to let them know the call is not an actual emergency.
“It’s okay. You’re not in any trouble. Just let us know everything is okay,” Nevin said.
Tough experiences linger
Both Fry and Nevin are aware of the possibility that a difficult call will exacerbate post-traumatic stress disorder that first responders sometimes experience.
“I worked as a paramedic for 20 years, and I see stuff or take calls all the time where all of a sudden it brings something up from years ago,” Nevin said.
“Officers, when they take their calls, there are some that will trigger PTSD. Dispatchers do go through that as well. We may not be on the scene, but we hear everything, and I mean everything. And listening to the officers, you know how stressed out they are. It affects us as well,” Fry said.
“If you’re listening to a mom screaming because her baby’s choking and can’t breathe, and you’re trying to walk her through, hoping that (someone knows the) Heimlich or you’re trying to get someone to start CPR… It does get to us as well. We understand how scary it is for you guys, but we are the ones having to listen to your screams, your tears, trying to walk you through that until an officer gets there,” Nevin said.
“We try not to think about it. But we also have to take the next call. When that call’s over, you got to go to your next one. You got to keep going until the end of the day. And when you don’t have anybody to talk to, you talk to your co-workers. They’re there with you. They go through it with you,” Fry said.
For her part, Nevin sees dispatching as a natural extension of her work as a paramedic. Fry originally thought she wanted to be a law enforcement officer, but a brief stint as a dispatcher changed her mind.
They are grateful for the tight bond they have formed with their colleagues.
“We get to know everybody and their kids because they’re our family,” Nevin said. “I say to them, ‘I will get him home to you tonight.’ I’ll tell my guys I love ‘em, and I do love ‘em. I’ll tell them when they’re going out the door, and they’ll tell me the same thing. I’ll say, ‘Be careful,’ because you never know. I mean, that’s the world we live in.”
The non-emergency number for the CPN Police Department is 405-878-4818. For more information, visit cpn.news/police.