Even on holidays, 911 dispatchers ensure county’s safety

BROOKVILLE — Sasha Young grew up listening to a police scanner.

So it seemed only natural when she followed in the footsteps of her family members and became a fifth-generation firefighter.

But that's not the only hat she wears.

Three to four times a week, she puts on a headset a little different from her firefighting helmet and assumes the role of a 911 dispatcher.

"A lot of times, we're considered the 'first' first responders," she said. "As a dispatcher, I'm the first person someone in an emergency has had contact with. Our job is to get all of the other responders that they will come into physical contact with going to them."

Although 911 dispatchers are called "first" first responders, sometimes, their work goes unnoticed.

Even on Christmas Day, 911 dispatchers at the Emergency Management
Agency in Jefferson County are at work behind the scenes to ensure the safety of everyone in the county.

"I have to look out for every resident in the county," said Tracy Zents, director of the Jefferson County Department of Emergency Services. "I have to look out for every person that travels through the county, to make sure they all get the same level of service and the correct level of service."

Dispatchers, shift super-visors and the deputy director of 911 Operations and Technology, Chris Clark, comprise 21 individuals responsible for all emergency phone calls in the county.

The second floor of the Emergency Management Agency can easily become a pressure cooker, with everyone feeling the same responsibility.

But as the director of the agency since 2005, Zents has learned to have faith in the dispatchers he has selected and in their work ethic.

"I have that confidence factor that my people know what they need to do to get the job done," he said. "I truly feel they put in a 100-percent effort. I'm like a fire chief who worries about his area when he's not around, to make sure everything is handled right. But I have to have my faith in the people I've hired and trained and put in those positions."

Every shift, there are four dispatchers answering phone calls. And there is a shift to cover every minute of every day, even on holidays.

"You do miss out on things, but being here, knowing that you're helping people, makes you realize that everyone who calls is a member of a family, too," Young said. "Somebody has to be here. The job needs to be done."

The county's 911 dispatchers come from different backgrounds, but they are all there for the purpose stated by Young.

She started her four-year, part-time career as a dispatcher in Clarion County but now works for Jefferson County.

Matt McCracken, a shift supervisor, has worked as a dispatcher for about 17 years.

Nick Runco began his career as a part-time dispatcher for the Punxsy Borough Police four years ago. Now he's a full-time dispatcher for the county, training other people in the career, such as retired Brockway Borough Police Chief Doug Johnson.

Because they are all working for the same purpose, they also work well together as a team, Zents said.

"Each one of the positions can answer police, fire and EMS calls," he said. "They work as a team. It's not an individual effort — it's a team effort. Even when we make mistakes, we make mistakes as a team. And when we do well, we do well as a team. It's a team effort the whole way through."

In this field, making mistakes is not an option, which is why each dispatcher undergoes three months of training.

Johnson is currently in that process.

After two weeks of training in the classroom, he began on-the-job training and is already on his way to sitting in what Zents refers to as “the hot seat,” all by himself.

“I have a lot more respect for the people that work in here,” Johnson said. “Even having been in law enforcement for 30 years, there’s a lot of things dispatchers do here that I was never aware of. This is a much harder job than I thought it was. It’s more than just answering the phone and telling people where to go.”

Johnson served as Brockway Borough Police Chief for about 20 years and was an officer for about 10 years before that, but he has already become acclimated to the new environment.

He also sees the importance of working as a team with his fellow dispatchers.

“Everybody here has to multitask,” he said. “Everybody here has to help each other.”

For Johnson, Young and even Zents, who has served as a volunteer firefighter for the Brookville Volunteer Fire Company for many years, being on both sides of the response gives them different, but important, perspectives.

“The dispatcher, when they're talking to that caller, they have to paint a picture in their mind of what is actually occurring there, so they can disseminate that information properly to the field responders,” Zents said. “And then at the same time, on the scene aspect of it, the first responders need to make sure they give good information to the dispatchers when they're requesting help or certain resources, so that the dispatchers can process that and get them the help they need.”

Clark, who has served as the Deputy Director of 911 Operations and Technology for a year, said it takes cooperation from all parties involved, and he said he appreciates the role every entity plays.

This cooperation will become even more important as technology continues to evolve.

The next generation 911 is quickly approaching, and Zents believes it will be upon the county’s emergency services in the next six months to five years.

Adapting to social media such as Facebook and Twitter will be a part of the next generation 911, as will the ability to communicate an emergency through text messages.

But these changes will ultimately fall back on the county’s “first” first responders.

“I consider the people that sit on the dispatch floor, and the emergency management staff as the unseen heroes,” Zents said. “They’re the first people who have any interaction with the people calling for help — I categorize it like a chain. If a link in that chain is broken, that chain falls apart, so it is our job here to make sure that that link continues from the time that caller calls in, until the emergency services are on scene.”