The life of an emergency dispatcher is anything but predictable. At a moment’s notice they must be ready to think on their feet, put aside their emotions and remain calm as they help callers.
Remaining calm – while difficult – is one of the most important things they can do, said Michelle Allen, Fort Drum Directorate of Emergency Services dispatcher.
“You already have someone on the other end of the phone who is nervous, scared, sick, whatever it might be,” Allen said. “To have another voice on the other end of the phone trying to help keep them calm allows them to think clearly and provide the information that you need in order to help them.”
Dispatchers who work for Fort Drum’s Directorate of Emergency Services are trained in methods that help them to keep their nerves under control, said Bob LaSalle, Fort Drum Emergency Communications Division chief.
“For our emergency dispatchers, one of the biggest challenges is being able to remain calm, especially on those calls that are life-threatening,” LaSalle said. “With experience and as they get to know the protocols that we use, they realize that they can make a difference, and some of these nerves ease.”
Allen’s ability to remain calm was tested recently when she received a panicked call from a Family Member who was in labor in one of Fort Drum’s housing areas.
“At 7:09 the 911 call came in, and the caller stated she was in labor,” Allen recalled. “I got her address and her name and started asking her basic questions, such as how far along she was and if she had another adult there to help her.”
Allen learned that the woman was 39 weeks pregnant with her fourth child and she had three young children who were still in bed asleep.
“I asked her – ‘how far apart are your contractions?’ – and she said that she didn’t know,” Allen said. “She sounded like she was likely in active labor.”
Wanting to ensure that both the mother and her young children were being taken care of, Allen asked whether there was another adult present in the residence.
“I asked, ‘Is your husband active military?’ She said yes and gave me his unit,” Allen recalled. “Then she told me he was deployed, and she did not have another adult in the quarters.”
The mother told Allen that she had called a friend to take her to the hospital, but she did not think she would make it in time.
“She stated she had called a friend who lived in Philadelphia and she was on her way, but that’s a 15- to 20-minute drive and traffic is hectic in the morning,” Allen said.
Allen continued to ask questions, while another dispatcher contacted Fort Drum Fire Department, called for an ambulance and sent a patrol car to help supervise the mother’s three older children.
In years past, LaSalle said, dispatchers answered the phone and gathered only basic information, such as the caller’s address and the general nature of the emergency. Now, he said, dispatchers are trained to gather much more detailed information, which can be vital to ensuring the safety of the caller.
“Dispatchers are all trained in what kind of information the responders are going to need and dispatching out the appropriate resources,” LaSalle said. “They gather information to pass on to responders, and they have to anticipate what kind of help the caller might need.”
Allen asked the mother if she had any pregnancy complications, and she stated that the baby was breech and was to be delivered via Caesarean section in two days. Then the mother yelled, “This baby is coming NOW!”
“Your mindset changes when you hear something like that and you have to refocus,” Allen said. “Knowing that the baby was breech, there was a different set of questions I needed to ask, so I just focused on that.”
“Childbirth is a natural thing, but when something doesn’t go as planned, that’s when we have a problem,” LaSalle said. “It’s important to act quickly in that kind of circumstance.”
A volunteer firefighter with the Antwerp Fire Department for the past 21 years, Allen also worked as an emergency medical technician with the same department for four years.
Although she had never been on a maternity call while she served as a first responder, she knew that a breech delivery can be dangerous for both mother and child.
Realizing that emergency medical services personnel were still en route, she carefully talked the mother through delivering her own baby.
“I told her to breathe as much as possible, and (I) kept reassuring her that help was on its way and that they would be there as quickly as possible,” Allen said. “I kept asking what was going on and how she was doing.”
Remarkably, at 7:12 a.m. – just three minutes after the call came in – the spouse told Allen, “The baby’s here.”
Her relief was short-lived, as the mother yelled, “Help me! The baby’s not breathing!”
Allen gave the frantic mother directions to help her newborn daughter breathe.
“My instructions were to clear out the mouth, and once she did that, the baby did start crying,” Allen said.
LaSalle said that Allen’s experience working as an EMT allowed her to more fully understand what she could do to help the mother, who could in turn help her infant.
“Somebody that has emergency experience – whether it be fire or EMS – is a great fit for emergency dispatch,” LaSalle said. “Having that experience and being confident in your own skills helps a lot.”
After ensuring that the baby was able to breathe on her own, Allen told the mother that it was important to keep her newborn daughter warm until medical personnel arrived. The mother wrapped the baby in a towel.
“Then it was important to check on the health of the mother,” she continued. “With a breech birth, you risk hemorrhaging, so I had to be sure that the mother was not in distress.”
Asked how she was doing, the mother responded, “Just send help!”
As she continued to reassure the mother, Allen was relieved to hear the radio in the background chirp. Fire department personnel had arrived at the house.
“I told her ‘the fire department is there. They should be coming into your quarters at any moment,’” Allen said. “Then I heard two of the responders in the background, and the baby was still crying, so I knew she was OK.”
Shortly thereafter, Allen heard the ambulance arrive at the house.
Although she did not have an opportunity to say goodbye to the spouse, she knew that both mother and baby were in good hands.
“I was relieved that – at the time when I hung up the phone – they were both doing really well,” she said. “The baby was breathing, mom was doing fine, and they were both going to the hospital.”
The spouse and baby were transported to Carthage Area Hospital, where both received medical care.
“The ambulance crew did call later to say that the baby and mother were doing fine,” Allen recalled.
Allen credited her ability to remain calm in such a stressful situation to her training and experience as a first responder.
“We (dispatchers) have protocols to go by, and we also have emergency cards that we read instructions from,” she said. “Knowing those cards are there and having experience on both sides – with dispatch and on the EMS side – helps you to think: ‘what do I need to know in order to help this person?’”
Ultimately, Allen said, it’s important to think of what you would want to hear if you were calling for help.
“I would want someone to help keep me calm when I’m too scared to think clearly,” she said. “You train yourself to focus on the task at hand – helping the caller.”
Although Allen admits that her job is stressful at times, she said that she finds it to be an occupation that is both interesting and deeply fulfilling.
“I like being able to help those who are in need, whether it’s (sending) medical help, sending police or the fire department to help them,” Allen said. “I also think the challenge of never knowing what each day is going to bring is interesting.”