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By Jess Macinko
News Editor 

EMS heroes are multi-hat wearers

 

April 12, 2017

Jess Macinko

ON THE WATCH: Vicky Ramsay watches her screens during her dispatch shift.

It's Thursday afternoon, and the call center for the Klickitat County Department of Emergency Management (KCDEM) is deceptively "cricket cricket." So much so that Terri Leininger doesn't even want to use the word "quiet," for fear of jinxing the center's rare calm.

Leininger is a public safety telecommunicator (PST), more commonly known as a dispatcher-though the term is only partially correct in her case. At larger centers, the PST workload is divided between call-takers, who only answer the phones, and dispatchers, who only send out EMS responders. But as with many jobs in Goldendale, the PSTs here must wear multiple hats.

"It takes lots of teamwork," Leininger says. "It's hard to explain how important that is." While each PST handles their own calls, they must also keep a constant awareness of the other's activity. If one call seems more serious, they will double up-one questioning the caller for more information, the other dispatching responders.

"Don't get frustrated," Leininger advises potential callers, who sometimes get impatient with the questions, not realizing that another PST is sending help.

The center is staffed by two PSTs at all times, and a third "floater" for busier times as scheduling allows. Today, Leininger is working with Vicky Ramsay. Both are veteran PSTs-Leininger has been at the post for almost 12 years, Ramsay for over 14.

Prior to that, Leininger was a corrections officer at the county jail, and Ramsay worked as a dental office manager. "Dispatch is less stressful," she says with a laugh.

The PSTs work 12 hour shifts, on a rotating pattern of two days on, two off, three on. Currently, KCDEM has 10 PSTs.

Together, they are responsible for coordinating and relaying information between at total of 18 fire disthree law enforcement agencies and three ambulance barns. They assist Washington State Patrol and Fish and Wildlife when those agencies can't reach their own PSTs.

Because of the Gorge's geography, 911 calls from Interstate 84 are received by towers on the Washington side. KCDEM PSTs field those calls, routing them to the appropriate agencies.

When they aren't getting calls, PSTs have plenty of paperwork to keep them busy. They are responsible for clearing numerous court documents, including restraining orders, warrants, and stolen gun and vehicle reports.

April 9 – 15 is National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week. In honor of the occasion, the Klickitat Board of County Commissioners released a proclamation commending KCDEM communicators for their service.

Dos and don'ts

There's one simple thing callers can do to make sure they get a fast response: Know where you are. KCDEM Director Jeff King says too often, callers are oblivious of their location. Some are even unable to tell PSTs what state they're in.

Civilians can also make PST's job easier is by not giving children old cellphones to play with. Phones with no service can still dial 911.

Non-emergency use of 911 wastes valuable time and resources for EMS. PSTs become familiar with repeat callers who use the service inappropriately.

"Sometimes it's parenting [via] law enforcement. Sometimes it's that they can't talk to their neighbors," Leininger says. It's hard not to get frustrated when they recognize a repeat caller's voice, but PSTs have to treat every call as an emergency.

EMS updates

PSTs used to work from a small, windowless room in the County Sherriff's office. The new center, which opened in 2014, is spacious and has panoramic windows looking north towards town and Observatory Hill.

"I can't express how awesome this building is," Leininger says.

Besides a more open working area, the facility also has a larger breakroom, including kitchen space. "During the holidays, we bring our whole kitchens here," Leininger says. "Even if we can't be home for Thanksgiving, it's great to have the whole room smell like turkey."

This year, the department will likely see a transition to Next Generation 911, an updated version of the system that will allow callers to text their emergency. Constantly changing technology is one of the challenges of the job, Ramsay says.

The department also has a new EM program coordinator, Scott Koehler. Koehler will be responsible for facilitating EM functions, like planning and training.

King reminds county residents to sign up for KCDEM's emergency alert system. You can sign up on the county webpage at http://www.klickitatcounty.org.

Jess@GoldendaleSentinel.com

 

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