Lisa Reynolds is one of Grand Canyon’s dis-patchers. She has been on the job for six years.
The special week, designated by the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials International, runs from April 10 to 16 and is designed to recognize the efforts made by those who work anonymously to ensure public safety.
“We’d like to take this week to recognize the people who work behind the scenes,” said Tuttle. “We ask these people to work an eight-hour straight shift, process criminal justice information, answer the public’s calls and provide a variety of services. They might handle anything from a report of visitors who are separated or who have lost their car, domestic assault, suicide threats, accidents and major criminal incidents.
The park’s dispatch office handles all 911 calls made in the 638 exchange, coordinating law enforcement, emergency medical, structural fire and search and rescue responses inside the park and beyond. They also field calls from law enforcement rangers on patrol and from the emergency telephones on Inner Canyon trails. In all, there are 28 phone lines coming into the dispatcher office. They also monitor eight radio frequencies and also serve as dispatchers for Flagstaff-area national parks and monuments.
“We’re it for Walnut Canyon, Sunset Crater and Waptuki Monument,” said Tuttle. “We are also after-hours dispatch for Petrified Forest National Park. And we are the primary dispatchers for the Tusayan Fire Department and Guardian Medical services, and we work in conjunction with the sheriff’s office.”
In fact the only emergency response not coordinated from the park dispatch office is for wildland fire; that is handled from Williams where a joint Park Service-Forest Service dispatch office opened last year.
Tuttle said that dispatchers undergo extensive training to help them with the sometimes life and death decisions that they must make for situations they can’t see.
All begin with a 40-hour basic course, followed by 24 weeks of on-the-job training before beginning the first solo shift. The long training period helps winnow out those who may not be suited for the job, Tuttle said.
“Within three to six months, people, decide if they can do this,” she said. “We try to expose them to any type of call they’re going to get. It could be standard stuff like a dog off a leash, or multiple incidents at one time.”
The basic course also teaches them how to obtain and interpret criminal justice information from state and national databases and certifies them as an emergency medical dispatcher able to provide lifesaving instructions until emergency medical services arrive.
“If someone doesn’t know how to perform CPR, dispatchers will walk them through that on the phone,” Tuttle said. “They provide information where lifesaving or split-second decisions have to be made. They are providing information to officers who may make the judgment call as well.”
To be able to do that, dispatchers need to know how to gather critical information.
“We have to keep asking questions until we can narrow it down,” said Lisa Reynolds, who has been a park dispatcher for six years. “People tend not to give all the information they know. They give what they want to give first but they always know more than they think they know.”
For example, when fielding a call as simple as that of a separated party, they have a series of routine questions they ask – how long since the person was last seen, age of the person, where they were last seen and what medical problems they might have. Based on those answers they may advise the caller to return to the place they last saw the person, to sending an immediate response if the lost person is a child.
Dispatchers also provide important backup to officers in the field, giving them information they can use going into a situation, running computer checks and determining the need to dispatch more resources. They also monitor officers’ safety. During a contact, rangers must check in every 15 minutes; if they don’t, the dispatcher will send a backup.
The job can be rewarding but it also has a downside, Tuttle said, with dispatchers subject to the same kind of stress that affects officers on the street.
“It can lead to burnout,” she said. “Especially if you bring the job home at night and can’t let go of what happens during the day.”
Reynolds, a former racehorse trainer and mule wrangler before injuries forced her into an inside job, said it took about a year before she felt the job was a good fit.
“That first year, I thought ‘I’m not qualified to do this job.’ It was the different type of call, the call I hadn’t had, that made me nervous,” Reynolds said. “Once I had the call, I knew I was OK. Now I look forward to the call I haven’t had. It’s a challenge.”
At least a couple hundred hours of training has also helped her confidence. Like many dispatchers, she takes part in the same kinds of courses available to law enforcement personnel. Her training covers aviation, red card certification and wildland fire training, incident management and more.
Most calls are fairly routine she said, citing separated parties and overdue hikers as the most frequent in the summer and auto accidents most common in the winter. Dispatchers also see a good number of wildlife-related calls. They got so many calls about a certain male elk with a tendency to get entangled in lawn and garden equipment that they dubbed him Dennis (as in the Menace). Not all situations are so lighthearted. Reynolds says the fatalities are the worst.
“Suicide calls aren’t as bad as when you get a call that someone accidentally fell over the edge or saw someone fall,” she said.
For the most part, she is able to leave her work at work – both the good and the bad.
“I try not to bring them (the calls) home. If you take the good stuff home, you tend to take the bad stuff home so I try not to take any home,” she said. “But there are some calls that don’t leave you.”
Reynolds said that despite the downside, she enjoys the pace and the opportunity to help others.
Most rewarding, she said, is “when you save someone, even if it’s just a little. When you save them aggravation, pain, anxiety or their life. I like this job. I like knowing that I have a job with the potential to help people and make a big incident flow smoothly. Even if no one says ‘thank you,’ I know I’ve done something.”