'More than clerical': A day in the life of Ledyard dispatchers

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Ledyard — Fires. Car crashes. Assaults. Suicides.

In each situation that a firefighter or police officer handles, a dispatcher is on the other end, calming the caller, gathering information and orchestrating the response.

“We’re often hearing people at their worst,” said Ruby York, a dispatcher in Ledyard for 21 years. “We’re the first person they talk to — and sometimes the last.”

Yet the federal Office of Management and Budget considers the position “clerical,” like a secretary, rather than “protective,” like an officer.

Police Chief John Rich said this past week that he supports the 911 SAVES Act, a pending federal bill that would change that designation, which he considers a slap in the face.

“I see them as first responders, most definitely,” he said. “The nature of their job is much more than clerical."

Rich said seven full-time and eight part-time dispatchers handle about 2,000 calls a month for American Ambulance, Ledyard police, Ledyard and Gales Ferry firefighters, and Preston and Poquetanuck fire and emergency medical services.

From their seats within the Colonel Ledyard Highway headquarters, the dispatchers let first responders know where construction sites are, or if they’ve been to a home multiple times in a short span. They ask callers if weapons are involved or teach people how to render first aid while services are en route. They relay information to responders and enter details into various databases.

“It’s a super technical job,” said Rich, who has been in law enforcement for 32 years. “They’re in there trying to juggle the whole situation."

“You realize very quickly the critical role of the dispatcher in the entirety of the picture on any call,” he added. 

‘You don’t have time to decompress’

York, 51, said one of her craziest calls happened when she answered the phone and learned the caller was trapped in the trunk of her ex-husband’s car.

The car left York’s coverage area, so she transferred the call to another dispatch center, which promptly hung up.

“I made contact with that area and said, ‘Hey, you just hung up on a caller in the trunk of a car,’” York said, shaking her head. “They eventually found her — she was taped up and everything."

Michael Gilman, a part-time dispatcher who has done the work for 22 years, said one of his more memorable calls was from an elderly woman who had seen a pretty bird outside her home. “She was so concerned it was someone’s pet,” the 45-year-old said, smiling.

Taking advantage of a relatively quiet day, the pair kept exchanging silly stories.

“People call 911 because they know it’s the only number a human will answer all the time,” York said.

But the conversation in the dimly lit center soon took a darker turn.

York remembered learning from a caller that a driver had hit and killed a young girl. The girl's brother survived because he was on a snow bank, but he saw the whole thing.

Just a few weeks earlier, another pair of children had died in a crash, she said.

Gilman said he has listened to several people die.

“It's hard when they’re begging you for help and you keep telling them, ‘Help is on the way,’” he said. “Then you hear them fade away to the point that they’re not breathing.”

Asked how he copes, Gilman said, “I go on vacation.”

“I think (dispatchers) get forgotten in the aspect of being a witness to a traumatic event without being there,” Rich said. “But you’re a witness because it’s happening on the other end of the phone.”

York thinks the federal bill could make it easier for dispatchers to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and may make legislators more likely to include dispatchers in future bills regarding mental health.

“We grew up in the era of, 'Suck it up and move on,'” York said. “So this legislation is huge for us.”

“Some days you just never get to come down from a call,” she said. “You don’t have time to decompress, you just compartmentalize. Some people move on, but it’s a cumulative stress.”

A day in the life

When York and Gilman are working, one will repeat what the caller is saying while the other broadcasts it to first responders.

The process is smooth regardless of the scenario: a routine traffic stop, the first snow of the year, a chaotic windstorm.

“Both Michael and I have been here longer than many of the police officers,” York said. “We’ve grown up here.”

York said she doesn’t let familiarity with the town, the situation, the officers or the callers change how she handles a call.

“You can’t predict what’s going to happen,” she said. “You have to make sure you’re still asking the right questions.”

“How we act can set the whole tone of the call,” Gilman said.

York described dispatchers as “type A personalities” who love what they do. In Ledyard, the four-days-on, two-days-off schedule means a free weekend comes just once every six weeks. Like many other dispatchers, York and Gilman also work in emergency medical services when they’re not in Ledyard.

“We operate on very little sleep, and adrenaline,” said York, who also spent time as a firefighter.

“I think it’s something that was born into me,” she said. “People don’t normally want to watch people die and run into burning buildings.”

“We have to be our best on their worst day,” Gilman said. “But I enjoy it. I still love answering the phone. I still love helping people."

'Challenges and tremendous growth'

Before the dispatch center opened in 1989, a woman named Addie Merchant dispatched from her home for about 20 years, dispatcher Paula Jean Smith said.

Smith, who has dispatched in Ledyard for 24 years, said the center only handled firefighters and the now-defunct Ledyard Ambulance back then.

Technology, the closure of mental health hospitals, the addition of two area casinos, the creation of an independent police department and the growing opioid crisis have changed the face of dispatching here.

“When I started, we were on the bottom floor of Town Hall, in a room the size of (this center's) kitchen,” York said. “There was reel-to-reel recording, no live monitoring. The radio was touch tone. The (computer-aided dispatch program) was DOS."

Now York monitors eight screens of different programs and camera angles intended to make her work easier. 

“We have had challenges and tremendous growth since (the center’s) inception,” Smith said, “and we are not done yet because with time comes changes, and we are up to the job.”

The bill

U.S. Reps. Norma J. Torres, D-Calif., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., introduced the 911 SAVES Act last month to recognize dispatchers “for the work they do every day to protect and save the lives of the public and first responders.”

In a news release about the bill, Torres, a former dispatcher, and Fitzpatrick, a former FBI agent, called the bill the first of its kind.

“When we are in danger, we call 9-1-1 and rely on those on the other end of the line to make sure we get the help we need,” Fitzpatrick said. “This legislation will give our 9-1-1 operators and dispatchers the resources, benefits, and recognition they deserve.”

No Connecticut legislators have co-sponsored the bipartisan bill, which still is in committee.

l.boyle@theday.com

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