911 DISPATCH: The Voices On The Line

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Life in the Des Moines 911 emergency dispatch can change in an instant.

“You can go from just total boredom to almost organized chaos,” says dispatcher Dennis McGilvra.

McGilvra was working the night the historic Younkers building caught fire and partially collapsed.

However, no two calls are alike. Danielle Huffman answered dozens of calls after a south-side man shot at police and bystanders from his front lawn in Decmeber, 2013 before police shot him dead.

“You have to know how to focus and keep calm in situations where others may unravel in.”

The call center received more than 180,000 calls last year. During some shifts call takers answered an average 200 per day. However, dispatchers say the majority of calls are pocket dials, wrong numbers or non–emergencies.

“An emergency to you is totally different than an emergency for me so you have to gauge that,” says 19 year dispatch veteran, Angie Taber.

Channel 13 spent 24 hours in dispatch, soaking in what dispatchers handle on a daily basis. In the morning, phone lines were tied up with calls of noise complaints and traffic accidents. By the afternoon and evening; domestic disputes, burglary, and drunk driving calls became more common.

Call takers spend over five months learning how to handle each type of call. Then they are placed on a yearlong probation period. It doesn’t take long before fatigue and stress set in.

Heidi Lubben calls the job thankless, “When you have the big calls out in the community, you don’t see us out there. We’re behind the scene, behind the phone.”

Rarely do dispatchers get to meet the people they help. Last year Huffman walked a nervous dad through his wife’s delivery a healthy baby boy. Several weeks later, Huffman was able to meet the family.

“I feel fortunate I got to help him deliver his son. It is rewarding.”

A reward few and far between, serving as the community’s lifeline.

“We don`t always know the outcome of every single of them because we`ve already moved on to another exciting call.”

Because of the demands of the job, the call center sees a high turnover.

Dispatchers say learning to separate themselves from the emergency situation is one of their biggest challenges.