ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly
May 13, 2004


Eureka 911: The cool heads at the other end of the line -- and why the city needs more of them.

Eureka Police Dept. dispatchers Michelle Olson, back, and Heather Gillespie, front.
Photo by Bob Doran




I. Beaten

[Sam Hart at her workstation]IT WAS 7 P.M., THE START OF THE FRIDAY NIGHT graveyard shift. Samantha Hart [photo at right] hadn't been plugged into her station for more than a couple of minutes before a button on her telephone lit up red, followed by an insistent ring that meant someone was calling the emergency line.

Clicking on an icon on her computer screen, Hart picked up the line and spoke into her headset in a calm, almost cheerful voice. It seemed a simple, humble act of defiance directed toward violence, criminality, illness, death -- all the forces of chaos that she would spend the next 12 hours trying to defeat.

"Nine one one, what is your emergency?" she said.

"I need a police officer," said a woman, in a voice that was trying hard to squelch its panic. "I was just assaulted."

The woman was calling from a pay phone just a few blocks from where Hart was sitting, in the Sixth Street headquarters of the Eureka Police Department. She said that she was just in her boyfriend's apartment across the street, and he had just violently beaten her. She said she was with her 2-year-old child. She had a hotel room tonight, but she was afraid to go there until she was sure he was in jail. The boyfriend knew she was calling the police. The strength began to melt away from her voice, but she was still able to say without screaming that she needed the police to come arrest him, now.

Almost as soon as the call began, Hart -- still using the same tone with which she answered the call -- periodically interrupted the woman to get the first details she needed. What is the boyfriend's name? How long ago did the assault take place? Where is he now? Is he armed? Are you in a safe place?

[Liz Schallon at her workstation]As she listened to the answers, Hart did several things at once. She searched the department's database for details of past police encounters with the man. She typed up notes on her computer and sent them over to Liz Schallon [photo at left] , her co-worker for the evening. Schallon began to formulate the EPD's response to the incident, dispatching an officer to assist the woman and others to go after the suspect.

Then, with squad cars still en route, the woman said that the man was leaving his apartment, and walking -- not toward her, but away. He was getting out of there, fleeing the scene. The woman pleaded with Hart, telling her that if the police didn't get there soon they would miss him.

Hart continued to question the woman. What direction is he headed? Toward A Street. What is he wearing? A beanie. Is he with anyone? No. Is he on drugs? Probably.

Soon after, the police arrive at the woman's location and she hung up. In a few minutes, Hart issued a BOLO -- "Be On the Look-Out" -- to all the police agencies in the area.

Less than an hour later, Officer A. J. Bolton came through the dispatch center and confirmed that the suspect got away. Bolton said that they had taken the woman to a shelter. "She had bruises on her back, bruises on her arm" he said.

But Hart didn't brood on the fact that maybe, if she somehow could have brought forces to bear a minute or two earlier, the woman and her child might not have had to spend the night in fear, imagining their abuser roaming the streets and laughing about his escape. By the time she heard Bolton's report she had already taken nine other calls. Nine other people needed her level head in their moment of crisis. She had nine other problems to solve, nine chances to set things right in the world. She couldn't waste time dissecting the first call of the night.

II. Can you multi-task?

The city of Eureka always needs more people like Samantha Hart. Right now, it needs four of them. The job offers $31,000 per year to start, and it'll give on-the-job training to any qualified taker. The challenge, for the city, is to find the one person in thousands who has the natural talent and disposition to be able to do it.

Hart, who goes by "Sam," has a lot in common with her colleagues in the Eureka dispatch office. She comes off as professional and business-like at first, but when you get to know her a bit (after about five minutes, the duration of a long 911 call) she is warm and funny, a fast, thoughtful talker with a quick smile. She's in her twenties, like almost all Eureka dispatchers are. She's a woman, like all 11 full- and part-time Eureka dispatchers are, at the moment. And like most of the long-term members of the office -- she's been there two and a half years -- she says she can't imagine doing anything else.

"I feel like I was born to do it," Hart says. "I've tried a lot of jobs, and this one just fits like a glove."

It may strike some as odd that at any time, day or night, the entire emergency response system in the greater Eureka area -- the EPD, the Eureka Fire Department, Humboldt #1 Fire District, City Ambulance -- is directed and moved around the city not by a seasoned, balding police captain, but by a couple of young (sometimes very young) women. But watching them at work, managing their double-screened computers, radios and massive, complicated phones with the speed, fluency and preternatural calm they bring to the work, it becomes tempting to take Hart at her word. What Eureka is banking on, with its desperate need for new trainees, is that there are scores of melancholy waitresses, receptionists and other harried, low-wage workers out there who have never had the good fortune to realize that, because they can multi-task, they are really dispatchers.

[Dee Dee Wilson in office doorway]Dee Dee Wilson [photo at right] , the manager of the Eureka office and a 24-year veteran dispatcher, was lucky enough to find her calling when she was young. She began doing the job for the Rio Dell Police Department when she was still a junior at Fortuna High School. "I'm sure the citizens of Rio Dell had no idea a 16-year-old was answering the phones," she laughs.

The city will be interviewing people for its open dispatch positions on May 25, and Wilson hopes to have a large pool of applicants. But she warns that there is a rigorous procedure that the department must go through before it makes a new hire. Applicants must pass a drug test, and be prepared for an extensive background check. And they must be willing to work strange hours -- dispatchers work 12-hour shifts, and after four months everyone working days (7 a.m. to 7 p.m.) switches to nights (7 p.m. to 7 a.m.)

Rudimentary typing skills are required, and an official job description issued by the city says that applicants should have one to three years' experience working a "radio, teletypewriter or other communications equipment."

But it's clear that the really rare qualities that the department needs are more matters of personality than training. It doesn't take too long to see that the successful dispatchers are the ones who think quickly and don't shy from decisive action -- "Type A" personalities, as one of them calls it.

"We're not getting shot at, but we're making very critical, life-and-death decisions about who we're going to send, and how much we're going to send, and we have to make those decisions very quickly," Wilson says.

The critical skill, Wilson says, is a talent and love for multi-tasking -- a word used so often in the office that it begins to sound like a kind of mantra.

"You have to know where every officer is at any given moment," Hart explains. "You have to talk on the radio. You may have to have four people on hold, and be able to go to any of them and pick up right where you left off. If it wasn't challenging, it wouldn't be rewarding."

Many of the Eureka dispatchers believe that the job comes more naturally to women than to men. Though Wilson says that she's had a few male dispatchers at various times, and Hart points to the men currently dispatching for the Sheriff's Office and the California Highway Patrol, they both believe that generally, women are simply better able to do many different things at the same time.

Some of the dispatchers take multi-tasking to such an extent that it becomes clear that to this crowd, it is less a talent than a lifestyle. Thirty-year-old Liz Schallon, the woman who was working with Hart Friday night, is an example: In addition to working full-time in the Eureka office, she is a full-time student at Humboldt State University, where she'll receive her bachelor's degree in early childhood education on Saturday. She also fills in part-time at the HSU Police's dispatch office.

Schallon -- who tried out for the job at the suggestion of a police officer who frequented a convenience store where she was working -- says she wanted to get her degree for personal reasons, and she thought that the field of study she chose may come in handy (she was married a little less than a year ago). It's not as if she were looking for a career change, because she has no intention of retiring from her current work.

"We all believe that this is our career -- it's not just a job," she says. "Not a lot of people can do what we do. We're adrenaline junkies. We love to work under pressure."

 [computer monitor screen]



While they answer the phones, dispatchers monitor 10 channels of radio traffic from a variety of public safety agencies.



The 26 telephone lines, including 911, police business lines and emergency telephones in city elevators answered by Eureka dispatchers.

 [computer monitor screen]

The top half of this screen shows all the police, fire and ambulance units that dispatchers may deploy at any moment. Their status whether busy or idle is indicated by color.

The bottom half shows all calls for service that require attention, along with the type of service requested and the priority of the call.


III. Knowing the turf

Just a few moments after she finished the call from the terrified woman at the pay phone, Hart's phone lit up again. A man calling from Woodley Island on his cell phone told her that he was looking at someone lying in the bushes, and the guy wasn't moving. Even after he honked his horn several times, the guy didn't stir.

Hart knew that in these types of calls, it almost always turned out that the guy in the bushes was just sleeping, or passed out from drink, and it went over to Schallon as a low-priority incident. The challenge ahead of her now was to try to get the man on the phone -- the "reporting party," in police parlance -- to tell her precisely where he was, so that an officer could locate him with the least amount of difficulty.

The man could tell her what side of the road he was on, but not much else. So Hart drew from her memory a verbal map of the island -- where the turnoff to the marina was, how it curved around and underneath the road, where certain patches of foliage were located. And after she got the reporting party to put an X to the spot, she didn't think it strange that she was able to picture the caller's surroundings better than he himself could.

"We're professionals," she said. "We're taught how to do this. [Callers] don't go to reporting party school."

As the shift wore on, there were a few moments of comic relief. At 8:20 p.m., a man called the EPD non-emergency line -- one of the many phone lines besides 911 that Eureka dispatchers answer -- and asked if the department would be conducting any sobriety checkpoints that night. Hart said she wasn't sure.

"That's unconstitutional, to do one and not let us know two hours before!" the caller warned. Hart rolled her eyes and gave him a number to call tomorrow. "How about you just don't drive drunk?" Hart asked after the man clicked off.

At 10 p.m., an antiquated machine off in the other side of the room suddenly jumped to life with a piercing shriek. Schallon swore under her breath as she hustled over to shut the thing off. The machine was the property of the Eureka Public Works Department, and its alarm meant that a sewage line was plugged somewhere. Hart began calling the 11 contact numbers she had for public works employees. She worked through the entire list over the next hour and a half, but not one of the civil servants could be found to come fix the problem.

Despite the early flurry of calls, it was turning out to be a relatively slow night. This might have been due to the fact that it was the end of the month. Most people had not yet received their paychecks -- for too many, a fresh excuse to do something stupid. Even so, serious calls kept pouring in at a regular pace.

A 13-year-old boy ran away from his Henderson Center home for the second time in a few weeks. He was gone all weekend the last time. A man wanted on a warrant from San Bernardino County was found while he was working on his vehicle at the Lube Rack on Fifth Street -- he struggled with officers while he was being taken into custody. Hart and Schallon had to call San Bernardino to see if they would agree to transport their suspect back home, and were surprised and pleased when their counterparts down south said that they would -- other counties are often too cheap to pay for transportation costs.

There were two different medical calls that were referred by a different agency. In both cases, friends of the patients had called the ambulance service instead of 911. That meant that the people at the ambulance company handled the over-the-phone triage, and Hart and Schallon were not called upon to use their medical training, which all new hires get in their first year on the job, to help keep the patients alive while the ambulance made its way to their homes.

Hart and Schallon will probably be forever unaware of the results of these calls for help, the times beyond number that people at their most emotional reach out to grasp at their lifeline. It is a curse of their work that they are intensely involved in the first chapters of an endless series of stories, and usually don't have the time or the opportunity to find out what happened afterwards.

"That's one of the things we complain about -- we don't get a lot of closure," Schallon said.

The Friday graveyard shift was not long over when, at around 1:30 p.m. the next day, EPD officers stopped by the apartment of the domestic violence suspect who had eluded them the night before. Perhaps he thought that he had gotten away with it, or perhaps he realized that there was nowhere for him to run. Whatever the case, the man was at his apartment. The officers took him to jail.

It had taken some time, but that particular piece of disorder from Sam Hart's -- and Eureka's -- Friday night had been resolved, or as close to resolved as is humanly possible.

In between answering 911 emergency calls, dispatcher Michelle Olson
cares for an abandoned kitten brought to the Eureka Police Department.



February 1996 feature: THE WORKING WORLD OF 911




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