Being a 911 dispatcher requires the aptitude to multitask, an excellent sense of geography and the ability to maintain a cool head. Cat McFadon has been exercising those skills for more than 20 years at Stanislaus Regional 9-1-1 and has risen through the ranks to become a manager.
While scheduling and other administrative work make up much of her responsibilities, McFadon said the people of Stanislaus County are her top priority, so she often is answering calls and dispatching police and fire when it’s busy.
SR9-1-1 covers every fire agency in the county and seven law enforcement agencies: Modesto Police Department, Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department and its contract cities (Hughson, Waterford, Riverbank and Patterson) and the Newman Police Department. The center also recently agreed to start dispatching for the Stanislaus County Probation Department.
McFadon wanted to be a police officer since she was a little girl, but she chose dispatching when she learned about the career as an Explorer for the Ceres Police Department. The idea of being the first point of contact in an emergency was intriguing, McFadon said.
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Within a matter of minutes, a dispatcher can talk to a person who just lost a loved one or is the victim of a violent crime and then answer a call from someone angry about trash being dumped in his yard.
The job of a dispatcher is not for the faint of heart.
Q: How do you process the emotions related to your job and stay calm when talking to people in emergency situations?
A: I teach stress management for dispatchers. I learned a long time ago to not carry around the dark calls that you handled your entire career. I call it backpacking. It means you stuff everything in your emotional backpack and carry it around. This can lead to PTSD, alcohol and drug abuse, overeating and depression, to name just a few. It is important to have a good support group, talk about what is bothering you, have an interest or hobby outside of work, and have friends that are not associated with what you do for a living. I separate home and work. I owe that to myself and to my family.
The public does not call you when they are having a great day. They call because they are in a crisis, angry, frustrated, intoxicated, mentally ill, etc. You have to be a professional. This means you stay calm, breathe and remember that nothing is personal. You never know who you might be talking to. Everyone needs to be treated like a family member; with courtesy and respect.
Q: How many dispatchers work for Stanislaus Regional 9-1-1? How are they staffed and are some hours or days of the week busier than others?
A: We currently have 36 radio dispatchers, three call takers, seven part-time call takers and two dispatcher trainees. Hiring is ongoing. We encourage future applicants to submit an interest card online at www.stanjobs.org. Working part time is a great way to gain experience for future full-time openings.
We work 12-hour shifts. 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., and one additional shift designated for Modesto police that is a 2 p.m. to 2 a.m.
With the downfall of the economy and legislation regarding early release on inmates, it seems that crime statistics are up in most cities across California. I find now we are busy seven days a week, around the clock.
Q: What kind of training is required to become a dispatcher? How long does it take you to learn all the codes you use?
A: We provide the training once a person is hired. Trainees are in an in-house academy for three weeks. This is where they are taught the background of our department, codes, and policy and procedures. Trainees are given exams weekly on the codes. We use the basic 10-code, California Penal Code, California Vehicle Code and Health and Safety Code, to name just a few. Once successful in the in-house academy, trainees are assigned to a communications training officer and they continue to learn codes, geography, all while answering 911 lines and nonemergency phones. Eventually, the codes just stick with you because it is part of your everyday language.
Q: What is the strangest call you have ever received?
A: That is such a hard question. After 20-plus years, I know I have had a lot. One that comes to mind was a young man who had been stalking his ex-girlfriend. In order to see her, he decided to play Santa Claus by going down the chimney. It did not work out so well for him. He got stuck in the chimney.
The parents of the young lady called the police and said, ‘There is a person stuck in our chimney.’ Sure enough, the officers got on scene and heard a young man yelling for help from the chimney. The fire department was sent. They had to break the bricks on the fireplace to get him out.
Q: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
A: Knowing that I am a part of getting someone the help they need or catching a criminal. I truly love my career. I have seen it change so much as a profession over the years, and it is exciting.
Q: Which holidays are the busiest, and why?
A: The two busiest holidays are Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve. We get inundated with so many calls of either illegal fireworks and/or shots being fired. If someone shoots a gun in the air, that round has to go somewhere, and it’s usually through someone’s home. Illegal fireworks cause homes to burn down and innocent citizens to be hurt.
Q: Does SR9-1-1 get a lot of phony calls – from children, for example?
A: Most of the calls we get from children are because they got Mom’s or Dad’s cellphone and are playing with it. More people use cellphones now instead of a land line. Depending on the cell carrier, the signal can either hit off a tower or latitude and longitude coordinates to the cellphone. We have to speak to an adult to see if there is truly an emergency. If we do not get an adult to answer, we have to send an officer in the area to see if there is an emergency. This makes it difficult if there isn’t an exact address. It also pulls an officer off another potential emergency call that he or she could be handling.
Q: Do you get inappropriate calls from people who don’t understand what 911 is supposed to be used for?
A: We have citizens who call 911 about barking dogs, loud music or they cannot find the nonemergency number. I think just asking them to call our nonemergency number and providing it to them helps. 911 emergency needs to be thought of as life or death, or in-progress crime. One example of in-progress crime is you are watching someone break into a neighbor’s home or car.