GREENFIELD — When Cindy Carver’s phone rings at work, she’s never really sure what will happen on the other end of the line. A fire. An argument. A pile-up on an interstate.
For the Hancock County 911 dispatcher, the phone at her desk is the first line of help for anyone in trouble. She and her colleagues consider themselves the first of the first-responders in any crisis, though they never make it to the scene.
Instead, they are entrusted with dispatching the right kind of help to those in need and knowing what service or equipment is required.
This week, dispatchers from across central Indiana gathered in Hancock County for five days of training, with lessons from a handful of emergency response teams who walked dispatchers through their procedures. The training gave dispatchers the opportunity to view what happens on the other end of a 911 call, which officials say will make them better-equipped to direct emergency response from afar.
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Dispatchers from Hancock, Madison and Johnson counties and the City of Lawrence Police Department attended classroom lectures given by Carver, a six-year veteran of the Hancock County 911 Center. They also watched a medical helicopter land in the center’s parking lot and were given tours of the chopper and two fire engines to learn about the equipment each vehicle holds.
Organizers say lecture-style training is valuable, but seeing the equipment and manpower involved in emergency response firsthand gives dispatchers a better idea of how scenes they direct work on the ground.
“We sit in a room; we don’t see the scene,” said John Jokantas, director of the county’s 911 center. “This gives them a feel for what’s happening.”
The training class offered in Greenfield this week was attended by newly hired dispatchers and a few long-serving 911 workers, Carver said. They covered basic dispatcher lessons, she said, describing them as a kind of foundation on which most 911 workers build their experiences.
They started the week learning the protocols for how best to answer phone calls and worked their way up into different emergency situations in which a caller might need help. The class addressed about 30 call types, such as burglaries, thefts, car accidents, kidnappings, domestic disputes and more.
Trainees also were given a crash-course in sensitivity training because dispatchers are often called upon to fill several roles when talking with people in need of assistance, Carver said.
“We’re the one sending them help, trying to comfort them, reassuring them that help is on the way and making sure the right (people) are being sent,” she said.
Outside the classroom, Hancock County’s program gets even more interesting, Jokantas said.
He asked representatives from the Greenfield Fire Department to give the dispatchers a look at the various equipment each truck carries. He also arranged for a crew from Indiana University Health’s LifeLine medical helicopter unit to land in the parking lot of the 911 center so that the trainees could get a close-up look at how police and fire crews set up an emergency landing.
Rob Pryor said this is knowledge he’s picked up over he’s years working as a dispatcher for the City of Lawrence Police Department, but demonstrations like the ones provided this week are helpful for new dispatchers because they give them a better idea of what they are calling to a scene.
“You call for helicopter and that’s it; you don’t see what happens once they get to the scene,” he said.
Seeing a practice landing also gives dispatchers an idea of the questions they need to ask of crews in the air and on the ground, Carver said. For example, they need to know to ask about power lines, trees, fields and other aspects of a landscape because they rely the caller’s descriptions when instructing the pilots.
This week was the second time an air ambulance has landed in the dispatch center’s parking lot for training, Jokantas said. He hopes it will become a more regular partnership, because it’s valuable knowledge for a dispatcher to have.
Eliminating unknowns is a big part of a dispatcher’s job, Carver said. So often, they are met with difficult situations that require fast thinking and a calm but quick response.
“You just never know what you’re going to get when you pick up the phone,” she said. “You get used to the (troublesome) things on the other end of the line, but there is always that call you’ve never had before or the call that turns out to be the worse one you’ve had in your career.”