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Talking Through Crises: 911 Dispatcher Explains Job’s Stresses and Rewards

It's National Public Safety Telecommunications Week, and we took the opportunity to sit down with a Washington County 911 dispatcher to learn about life in the county's center for crisis communications.

April 8-14 is National Public Safety Telecommunications week. To celebrate, we interviewed Washington County Sheriff’s Office dispatcher Jean Nousiainen about what she’s experienced over the years taking calls at the county’s 911 center.

Patch: How did you get started working as a dispatcher?

Jean Nousiainen: Before I started working here, I worked in customer service at call centers. I always wanted to help people, and my husband started working here as a corrections officer, and I just ended up going to the library, searching for a job and this is the first thing that popped up, was Washington County’s website. I don’t think any of us ever plan to be dispatchers. It’s just something that, it ends up happening to you. You just fall into it.

Patch: I imagine it was quite a bit different than your previous job in the customer service call center. How did you make that adjustment?

Nousiainen: With the help of everybody here. I mean, basically, with regular customer service it’s all repetitive, and you can’t prepare yourself for all the different obstacles you’re going to face here, so I’ve had someone sit with me for four months straight and basically help me through all the calls. That’s basically what it is, is someone helps you through it and you take the classes that you need to take. When you’re new you always have somebody with you at all times. Basically what you need to do is go through a good house fire on the fire channel, because it gets really busy, or a good storm. Once you kind of get past those first big calls, you become a lot more comfortable with it.

Patch: Do you remember your first big call?

Nousiainen: Yes, it was actually a double homicide and it was my last night of training. My most memorable night that I had here is the night of the Hugo tornado. That affected a lot of us in different ways. It was just so busy in here.

Patch: What are the most common calls that you get?

Nousiainen: I work during the day, so we get a lot of administrative calls, a lot of vehicle break-ins, theft reports, medicals, because we’re not just police here. We do police, fire and medical. The afternoons, they get a lot more in-progress calls where you’ll see more altercations and domestics. Then the nights, it can go either way. It can either be really off-the-wall crazy with calls or it can be like chirp-chirp quiet.

Patch: Has being trained to stay calm and unemotional under pressure changed you personally?

Nousiainen: I feel like I have a lot thicker skin than when I first started here because there’re a lot of things that you have to just let slide off. We all have bad days in here. We all have good days in here, and what’s nice is that we all support each other. If somebody needs to go for a walk because they had a bad call we can.  Today was kind of fun because we’ve had a guy that we’ve been looking for who’s been breaking into houses and he’s been interrupted a couple of times and they found him today. It was kind of a cheer in the room. We finally got him.

Patch: You mentioned having a bad day or a bad call. What kinds of things would that entail?

Nousiainen: People don’t call us because they’re happy. That part is something we’re really well-trained to handle. But I think the hardest calls for most of us, are calls that involve children. I think those are the hardest ones for anyone to take. But then there’s the really good calls, too. We’ve had dispatchers deliver babies in here. We’ve had dispatchers instruct CPR where people have come back. We’ve had dispatchers have people do the Heimlich maneuver and save people that way, so it’s nice that we can help people over the phone before rescuers can get there and help them, so it definitely balances out.

Patch: What was your most rewarding call?

Nousiainen: There’s been a couple of times where I’ve instructed CPR to a baby and the baby’s made it. It’s just nice when you hear the baby cry again. It’s just nice knowing that you helped somebody, or if you help an officer. We like it when we take calls and then they find who they’re looking for. If there’s somebody from the public who’s calling in a drunk driver and we’re able to get the officer to the drunk driver and they catch them, that’s always a good feeling.

Patch: Is there anything that would be good to get out to the public about when they are calling 911 that maybe people don’t realize?

Nousiainen: I think the most important thing for them to know when they call us is that their location is the most important thing they can give to us. It’s why we ask for that first because we can’t send them help if we don’t know where they are. Regardless of what problem they’re having, we need to know where they are.

Patch: What is the biggest thing that you’ve learned by having this job?

Nousiainen: I’ve learned that things that used to bother me are very minor now. It’s the little things that count. Before you go into a profession like this, you’ll get upset about certain things that I would never get upset over now, because I know how minor it is compared to what can happen or what has happened in people’s lives.

Patch: What is the strangest call that you’ve gotten?

Nousiainen: Well, I don’t know why, but some people get drunk and call the police and they’re always funny to talk to.

Patch: Do they just call to chat?

Nousiainen: Yep, they’ll just have a little bit too much to drink and I don’ t know if they get lonely, but they’ll call.

Patch: What do you do when that happens?

Nousiainen: We talk to them. We’ll try and figure out where they are. They need to at least have their welfare checked in our minds, so we’ll keep them on the line, try and figure out where they are and try and at least have an officer come out and talk to them and make sure they’re all right.

Patch: Are you glad that you decided to make this career transition to do this?

Nousiainen: Yeah, I like it here. It’s a good field. This is a good place to work. I think I’m meant to be here. There’re only so many people that can do this job. There’s a certain percentage, and I think I’m one of those.

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