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By Lou Marzeles

Emergency dispatch center has unique responsibilities, staff


Lou Marzeles

CONTROLLING EMERGENCY COMMUNICATIONS: Thanksgiving decorations sit atop a console as Robert Allen looks over Lisa George’s shoulder at her computer station at the county dispatch center.

It’s a somber and uninviting place, the Klickitat County Jail at the Courthouse in Goldendale. Of course it’s not meant to feel like a cozy living room. But into that space day after day for years have gone a few unique people who truly do protect and serve.

Shirley Chapple, Lisa George, and Robert Allen make their way into the first part of the jail in the county’s emergency dispatch center, just past the first heavy doors. They’re the day shift, working 5:20 a.m. to 5:20 p.m., when the night shift comes on to relieve them. Someone is always in the dispatch center. A total of 10 highly trained and experienced personnel work here, with a new hire just coming on. The other seven staff members are Pam Schilling, Vicky Ramsay, Janet Matulovich, Terri Leininger, Jaimie Ward, John Bartz, and Joe Davitt.

“The dispatchers here dispatch for the whole county,” Chapelle says. “We dispatch law enforcement, fire, and medical personnel. We take the calls. We put in a general report on what we call our CAD: Computer Aided Dispatch.”

Into that software goes data that tracks county and emergency personnel on shift at the moment, short narratives about incoming calls, and information on dispatches made to get fire, emergency service, or law enforcement to needed locations. This is the communication interconnection between the public and the services.

Chapple takes a call as the interview for this story occurs; after she explains what happened. “Medic 1 said they arrived at KVH (Klickitat Valley Health),” she says. “They’re attached to this call. When you put a call in CAD it’s attached to a number. Medic 1 said they arrived with a patient.” Pointing to one of her three computer screens she adds, “Over here it gives you the status, how long ago, and the kind of agency it is. Law enforcement, these are Bingen-White Salmon. They’re both out at the PD (police department); they’ve been there for an hour. Dallesport Medic is moving out to Skyline for a transfer.”

Screens flicker before her, as well as at George’s station, telling the story at a glance of the county’s emergency call status at the moment. The dispatchers’ voices—faceless, anonymous—are heard all the time on the many scanners on at any given time around the county.

The 12-hour shift could seem grueling, especially given that handling emergencies is not exactly your average day’s work. But for the staff, it actually works out. “In this type of job,” Chapple says, “you tend to need more time away, or more time off. So we’d rather work the longer hours to have more time off. So Lisa and I came in this morning, and we work Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Then we’re off for two days, work two, off three. We put in anywhere from 36 to 48 hours. We have to have two people here all the time. We have so many dispatchers and shifts to fill. It worked out really well for us, and people really like the 12 hours.” The shift schedule also allows staff to spend evening hours with their families. The new hire should bring the center up to full staff and allow a much-needed extra person to be in the office during peak times such as 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

“We also have 9-1-1,” Chapple says. “It would be really hard to talk someone through CPR over the phone. Nine out of 10 times when we get a call like that, the other person is dispatching ambulance, rescue, and taking care of all the other calls.” One person talks to the caller while the other juggles related emergency services to help the caller.

For a job with such weighty responsibilities, some people last a long time. George has been at the center for 15 years, Chapple on and off since 1988. Allen started at the center in 2003 and has held his current position, Operations Manager, since 2007. But the office itself is under brand new overall management.

“Organizationally we’re now under the new county Emergency Management department,” Allen points out. “Physically of course we’re still in the same location.” The new department, under new department head Ed Powell, now handles all emergency preparedness procedures for the county and will have a new office building over near the Klickitat PUD. Bids went out to contractors for construction of the building, but all of them came in between 200 and 300 percent higher than the costs projected for it from the county’s presumably well-informed construction source.

The new building will be far more accommodating for the staff. In the current office, space is cramped. A single small bathroom also serves as the “kitchen.” The new building will actually have a real kitchen—and of course it won’t share an entrance with the county jail.

Asked to recount specific instances when the dispatch center was totally abuzz with activity, Allen pauses a moment, then states:

“When the F-18s collided over Arlington.”

On July 21, 2004, at about 2:30 p.m., two Navy F-18 fighter airplanes collided with each other in mid-air. The planes were returning from a low-altitude training mission from the Oregon National Guard’s air base in Portland, after completing a run to Boardman bombing range. Flying 50 to 60 feet apart, something went very wrong. Debris from the collision sprawled over a large area, the Columbia River.

“Everything just exploded all at once,” Allen recalls. “Telephones were just non-stop.”

“The debris went onto Interstate 84,” adds Chapple. “We also got a lot of cell calls from Oregon along the 84 corridor, and even the towns of The Dalles, Hood River, Arlington. Somebody over there calls 9-1-1, we get their calls.”

Klickitat County dispatch took the brunt of all the calls in the area in the wake of the collision.

“The calls were so heavy, with our desk phones we couldn’t make phone calls out,” says Allen. “All of our lines were busy, stacked up. To make phone calls out, to notify the FAA and to find out what happened, we were making personal cell phone calls in addition to using the county’s two cell phones. We had three people in here, and we had one on our additional station out there.” Allen points to a smaller room just outside the main center. “So we had four. Pam had come in to pick up her paycheck.”

“I had heard it on a county car and heard it on the radio,” Chapple says. “My office was back there at the time. I started trying to make some of the calls to make out to find the information. What type of aircraft they were, what branch of the military, were they carrying missiles, and stuff like that. It was just crazy.”

“That was the worst I’ve been involved in just off of sheer volume,” adds Allen. “On the other side, a successful rescue, we took a call on Thanksgiving Day four years ago, I believe. A very broken cell call, just at daylight. We couldn’t get any information from it, not even a location. Then a little while later we took another call, and we started to get a little more information. We understood somebody was stranded somewhere, but we couldn’t tell where. And about an hour of intermittent calls like that, we finally were able to get enough information to start tracking this person down. It turned out it was a woman who was traveling from eastern Oregon into the Willamette Valley, and she had tried to take a short cut over Mt. Hood and had gotten stranded on a forest service road. She had been there all night, stuck in the snow. Her car, I believe, was still able to run, so she still had a little bit of heat. But she was at wit’s end. We worked with Hood River and Wasco Counties and sent people out, with the information we were able to gather. We finally were able to track her down. They got someone out there, they towed her out, and got her to town where she was able to continue her journey. She went as far as to send us an email thanking us as a whole, all of the responders, for rescuing her and how thankful she truly was; especially being Thanksgiving season. It’s one of those happy endings. We don’t hear that feedback all the time. So when we do get that, it goes a long way.”

For all of its hectic pace, the dispatch staff finds a lot to appreciate about what they do.

“It takes a long time to be comfortable and being able to do the job on your own without assistance from a trainer or a co-worker,” George says. “It does take a while for somebody to be fully trained and do the job.”

“There are days when nobody really wants to come to work,” says Chapple. “But really, you don’t really mind coming. You have those days, but once you’re here it’s good. I agree with Lisa that what keeps you going for years and years and years and keeps your interest is the fact that it is always different. There’s always something, or somebody, or interesting character that calls keeps it colorful. Nothing really is ever the same. You can learn something every day, no matter how small, that you might help you have more compassion for that person.”

“My overall meter of whether or not I like this job, is at the end of the day I am never in a hurry to get out of here,” Allen adds. “Very few times have I had something I needed to be out of here right at quitting time. If I stay for 20 or 30 minutes to talk, we’re family, we’re friends. And most of us don’t knock the door down getting out of here. When you review that in your own mind, we like what we do here. And frustrating days aside, we keep coming back. We’re all pretty proud of what we do.”

Lou Marzeles

Shirley Chapple points to information on her computer screen in the office.

“Be patient with us,” Chapple says when asked what the staff most wants the public to know about them. “Just because one person is calling us doesn’t mean that there isn’t somebody else who is need just as more at the time. That we all have to prioritize everything that goes on in here. And they might not be at the top of the list, in terms of emergency priority. And we’re very excited we are that the county has put us under emergency management. We’re going to get a new building, with space and there will be some comforts. Right now we don’t leave for lunch. We don’t get set breaks, or set lunches. We eat when we can, we run to the bathroom when you can. The new move is all really exciting to us, and the attitude that Ed Powell is bring in.”

Allen says the staff is happy to go and talk about what they do to groups in town. “We want to get out into the community and talk about 9-1-1. Any groups that are out there that want us to come talk, come in and talk, go ahead and get in touch with me. My direct telephone number to my desk is 773-2492, and my email address is: .”

And on this Thanksgiving, again the county has an opportunity to appreciate the team at the county dispatch center.


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