One hour at a time… Dispatch Keeps watch Midnight to 1 a.m.

Photo by Adam Lepierre

Erica Stolhand takes her place at Hood River Couny’s

9-1-1 command post to answer medical/fire/police emergency calls.

By RAELYNN RICARTE

News staff writer

July 16, 2005

Sentinel role never ends at county 9-1-1 command center

The streets of Hood River are deserted and most windows are dark as residents slumber through the midnight hour.

But the lights are on at the county’s Emergency Dispatch Center and the coffee is brewing. The cheerful glow emanating from the windows of the building contrasts sharply with the shroud of darkness that envelopes the quiet town.

Dispatchers Deevonna Frasier and Erica Stolhand greet the new day with little fanfare; they are busy monitoring the activities of two patrol officers during a traffic stop in Cascade Locks.

“We check the status of our officers every four minutes when they are out with a person,” said Frasier. “If they don’t answer us, or we can’t hear what they are saying, we get someone else to start heading their way.”

The sentinel role of dispatch is also available to citizens, who are only a phone call away from help 24 hours a day, seven days a week. No matter how panicky the caller might be, these professionals remain unruffled and on task.

“We use repetitive persistence to calm people down a lot of the time. We just keep asking them the same thing in the same tone until we get them to answer our questions,” said Frasier. “Sometimes people in a medical emergency get frustrated when we keep asking the questions — until they realize that we already have an ambulance on the way,”.

During the midnight hour on Thursday, the phones are mostly silent at the center. Stolhand has taken the lead on answering any 9-1-1 calls, her medical dispatch cards at hand. She, like her peers, has been trained to walk people through the administration of first aid in a crisis situation. Whether it’s severe bleeding or a heart attack, dispatchers dispense information to stabilize the situation until medical experts arrive.

Every once in awhile they receive a call that is truly harrowing. A couple of years ago, a pregnant woman reported that she had been stabbed in the abdomen with a hunting knife by her husband. Although Frasier and Stolhand were not on duty that day, they were impressed with the injured woman’s ability to stay in control of the situation even though her attacker, who suffered from a mental illness, was at her side. And they joined the applause when dispatchers later learned that both she and her unborn child were alive and well.

“That was a really difficult situation for everyone and we all thought she did great,” said Stolhand.

On this night, Frasier is tasked with checking out license plate numbers and warrant information requested by city police and county deputies. Neither she nor Stolhand jump when the office siren goes off to indicate that one of about 22,000 residents in the county has dialed 9-1-1 for help.

Stolhand greets the caller and prepares for the unknown — which turns out to be a rather ordinary complaint.

An Odell citizen wants it known that several cars are speeding on the roadway in front of his home. That information is passed by Stolhand on to a county deputy, who heads off to check on the situation.

“We get a lot of what we consider non emergency calls on our 9-1-1 line. Luckily we’re not a bigger city, like Portland, or there would be even more,” she said.

The center can always be reached at the 386-2711 business number, but Stolhand said many people just automatically dial 9-1-1 for any problem. In fact, Hood River County dispatchers field more cell phone reports about potential drunk drivers than any other type of call. For the week preceding the Fourth of July, and a few days after, they are also inundated with calls from frustrated citizens wanting a respite from fireworks.

Stolhand said every once in awhile there is a call that is amusing to dispatchers — although not always to the responding officers.

For example, she said one night a resident reported that a skunk had its head stuck in a mayonnaise jar and wouldn’t leave the yard. That information was then relayed very succinctly to the officer on duty. Stolhand said he was first told that a skunk was on the premises and wouldn’t leave. And then, almost as an afterthought, informed that the animal was probably having problems navigating since its head was stuck inside a container.

“You dispatch calls like that very discreetly or else they aren’t going to want to go,” she laughs.

Not everyone is thankful for the service that dispatch provides. Irate citizens often get hostile when told that law enforcement officials will not intervene in a neighborhood disagreement where no crime has occurred.

And some drivers aren’t grateful for the fact that dispatchers have logged a warrant for their arrest into a data base — and then informed an officer about its existence during a traffic stop.

When there is a quiet moment at the center, dispatchers catch up on piles of paperwork. Not only do they enter warrants into either a state or national computer network, they also record all citations and restraining orders. And much of that work ends up being done on the weekday graveyard shifts since Friday and Saturday nights are almost always hectic.

In fact, dispatchers now view First Friday events in Hood River as one of their busiest nights of the month. With 2,000-4,000 people out and about and alcohol flowing freely, there are more traffic infractions and confrontations to deal with.

When there are larger-scale emergencies, such as a wildfire, the dispatch center is almost overrun with calls. Stolhand said it is not uncommon for the phone to ring every two seconds and then calls have to be prioritized by need.

“We answer and make sure the person is fine, then we put them on hold while we get to the next call,” she said.

The hours of a dispatcher can be grueling, with rotating shifts, but the pride that Frasier and Stolhand take in their role of guardian is evident.

On this dark night they know that most people are unaware of their watch, but that is the way it should be. It is now 1 a.m. and all is well in Hood River County — at least for the moment.

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