Dispatchers that answer 9-1-1 calls in Iowa are being recognized for their extraordinary work over the past year. The Telecommunicator of the Year awards ceremony is tonight in Urbandale. Cara Sorrells is president of the Iowa Chapter of NENA, the National Emergency Number Association. She says 9-1-1 dispatchers work are under intense pressure for much of their daily shift.
"When you’ve had a very stressful day, you want to go home and hug your kids or pet your dog," Sorrells said. "It’s very hard sometimes when you’ve had a tragic call or you’ve been wired-up for four or five hours doing some terrible accident. It’s very hard not to think about it when you go home." New technology has made the job easier in some respects, but Sorrells says calls to 9-1-1 have tripled with the advent of cell phones.
"I can remember when I started, which was 20 years ago, we had the one stand-alone radio mic and one computer that was a Teletype," Sorrells said. "Now, we’re looking at six different computer screens…it can be overwhelming." Sorrells works in the Washington County Communications Center and is one of nearly 1,700 9-1-1 dispatchers in the state.
Their work not only involves sending the appropriate emergency response vehicles to the right location, but also asking the caller questions that could play a critical role in a courtroom. "The questions they ask, the way they ask them and the responses they get – if they don’t interpret them correctly, they might miss something," Sorrells said.
"They might miss a hang-up 9-1-1 that’s really a domestic (dispute) and someone disconnected the phone. Or maybe someone’s committed a crime and the caller’s giving important information for officer safety. They need to pick up on that and pass it along to the right person." Dispatchers from 15 counties have been nominated for tonight’s awards.
Sorrells says many of the dispatchers are being recognized for handling 9-1-1 calls that helped save lives in tornadoes and flooding. One of the nominees, Erik Martin, is a dispatcher in Monona County. He was the lone dispatcher on duty during the early morning hours of June 12, 2008 – when a tornado hit the Little Sioux Boy Scout Camp. Four boy scouts were killed in the storm.
Nineteen members of the Boy Scouts of American will be presented today with "9-1-1 NENA Hero" awards for their actions that likely saved other scouts’ lives.