There is a job that only about four percent of the population is qualified and capable of doing. At this very moment, there are at least two people in Oro Valley and two in Marana who are doing it. This is the job as a police 911 operator and dispatcher.
In both Marana and Oro Valley, they sit in front of multiple screens, which display maps and information, in a dimly-lit room. Constantly, the chatter over the radio is in their ear as they decipher what is needed and who.
Sonia Schreiber, who is currently a lead dispatcher for the Oro Valley Police Department (OVPD), has been with the town for 10 years. Through college, she studied to be and thought she would be a teacher. But after serving as a military police officer in the Army, she was attracted to the environment and excitement of working for a police department, but liked the less-dangerous side of working as a dispatcher and operator.
“There aren’t very many jobs out there that you can leave and feel a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment,” Schreiber said. “I think I just realized that with this job that I can kind of continue on that level of satisfaction and accomplishment without seeing face-to-face what goes on out in the field.”
Shelia Blevins, who is the communications supervisor for Marana Police Department (MPD), was a pre-school teacher before becoming a dispatcher and a 911 operator. As a teacher, she got to know a police officer with the Tucson Police Department (TPD). He offered her a ride-along, and in doing so, gave her a tour of the communications department.
“I just walked through and just said, ‘I want to do this.’ It was just an immediate ‘I can do this,” Blevins said.
She worked for TPD for 10 years, and has been with MPD for the past 17 years.
To become a dispatcher and 911 operator is a yearlong process and is no easy task. Recently, in the Oro Valley’s department’s search to fill a vacancy within communications, it tested about 80 applicants. Of that 80, 13 continued on to be reviewed by an oral board. Of those, four were given an extensive background check.
Nancy Anderson, who is the communications supervisor, has been with OVPD almost 24 years. She has seen a lot of people try and become a dispatcher by taking the initial test.
“It’s a multi-tasking test that kind of tests the abilities you already have,” Anderson said. “Listening to directions, listening to descriptions, taking notes, being able to refer back to your notes, remember what you were asked, follow instructions audibly.
“It’s testing the inherent skills people have as far as listening, comprehension, and multi tasking.”
Once getting the job, there is a six-month training period to become proficient and cross-trained as both a dispatcher and a 911 operator. The work schedule consists of four 10-hour days, where the person has to be mentally focused and alert for the entirety of their shift.
During that time, they learn how to deal with any type of situation that might be called in, along with the ins and outs of the department and the sworn police officers who they talk to on a daily basis. As a dispatcher they have to set their personal emotions aside, knowing they could possibly send the officers to a location that might be dangerous.
Grace Neal is a dispatcher for MPD and has been with the department for the past 24 years. She said knowing the typical tones of the officers and controlling her own is really important in her job.
“If they talk just a little different, it’s a red flag for us,” Neal said.
And on the opposite side, if they know the officer is getting into a “hot” situation, dispatchers have to be careful of what tone they use.
“[The officers] will feed off of a dispatcher,” Blevins said. “That’s one of the hardest things you can teach a new dispatcher is to stay calm. The higher priority of the call, the slower I am going to talk.”
Compartmentalizing is also a task that is crucial to being a dispatcher and 911 operator, dealing with both the callers and their coworkers.
“We do interact a lot with them, face to face, so it does add a certain level of anxiety and stress, because you know them a little more personally than just a badge number or a voice over the radio,” Schreiber said. “Most of us know their wives and husbands, and their children. So wanting to get the job done as safely as possible is so vital.”
“It is very much a family here,” Anderson added.
Last year, OVPD received 57,330 calls. Of that, 15,538 were emergency calls, while Marana received about 67,000 calls, with about 25,000 of them being emergency calls. Even with the sheer number of calls, all dispatchers and 911 operators have a handful of calls that they will always remember.
“One event that stays with me, and I think about it every so often, is I had a gentleman call in on 911 and I answered that phone line and he was reporting gun fire that he had heard,” Schreiber said. “As I was gathering information from him, he hung up the phone.”
Though she tried to call him back, he never answered the phone.
“It turned out that he was actually calling about the gun shots he was going to fire in order to kill himself,” Schreiber said. “That definitely does stays with me. I was literally the last voice who he spoke with before he ended his life.”
It is a very serious job that is behind the scenes and goes unnoticed. It is a rare thought from the general public that at least two people are sitting in the Oro Valley police station and at least another two in the Marana police station every hour of every day waiting to take a call from someone that is having their worst day.