For Public Safety Communicators in Cape Girardeau, Mo., multitasking takes on a whole new meaning.
With a headset on, eyes focused on four computer screens and a hand placed next to a ringing phone, Lead Communicator Stephanie Nelson is used to the chaos of answering 911 calls.
Nelson said being a Public Safety Communicator wasn’t originally in the cards, at all, but it ended up turning into a dream job. After working as a communicator at nearby, smaller areas, Nelson heard of a job opening with the City of Cape Girardeau.
In the same city where the Benton, Mo. native’s father worked as a police officer, Nelson began working at the Public Safety Communications location in Cape Girardeau in January 2008.
“I really do enjoy what I do,” Nelson said. “Some people can’t say that, but I like the craziness. I like that nothing’s ever the same. You do kind of get jaded after a while, you know. It’s like a night’s not complete without a crazy call.”
Communicators for the City of Cape Girardeau work eight hour shifts answering 911 calls. Eight hours can quickly turn into a 12-hour shift in the case of a large emergency or severe weather.
Cape Girardeau’s Public Safety Communications location is also the back-up agency for others nearby, should they fail, and the location serves as a mini headquarters for city department officials during serve weather or other emergency events.
Three communicators typically work at a time: one assigned as a police dispatcher, one assigned as a fire dispatcher and one assigned to take both 911 and administrative calls.
Nelson said a majority of calls answered during the day involve traffic accidents and animal calls, while calls at night vary and can include anything from assaults to robberies.
Thinking she had a fairly decent grasp on doing more than one thing at one time, Nelson quickly learned early in her career as a communicator that multitasking is done a little differently when answering 911 calls.
“You’re talking on the radio,” Nelson said. “You’re listening to your coworker tell you about the call you’re on, you’re also on 911, but you’re still having to listen to the radio and talking to the officer, and then the other phone rings and you’re out of people, so you have to answer that phone. You’re kind of out of options, but you still have to have the room awareness.”
However, multitasking is not the most difficult part of the job. The constant 911 calls involve everything from minor fender benders to chasing criminals. Public Safety Communicators must be prepared to handle everything.
“We get everybody’s bad day,” Nelson said. “You’re not yourself on your bad day. It’s kind of neat to be able to be able to be there to comfort somebody.”
Communicators’ job is coordinating proper assistance for individuals, depending on the situation, in the shortest amount of time possible. Not knowing how some situations turn out is what Nelson says can be trying.
“The downside is, you feel that you form some type of attachment momentarily to these people, trying to help them,” Nelson said. “And at the end all we hear is, ‘We’re clear,’ and sometimes we don’t get the outcome of it, and that’s taken some getting used to.”
One part of the job that will always be the hardest to deal with, Nelson explained, is dealing with individuals witnessing death or who are dying.
“We do take calls where people die and you do have to–I’ve heard it a few times, you know, been there at their last moments,” Nelson said. “That’s difficult. But to know that you were there for their loved one, just in those few minutes that they were scared. Just to know that you were there to comfort them. It’s heavy, but it’s kind of nice.”
Nelson and her co-workers have found different ways to cope with the stress of the job by learning when to laugh and putting some of their trust in Karma. At the end of the day, Nelson said the most rewarding part of the job is being able to play a part in helping those in need and catching offenders.
“It always feels good to be able to help,” Nelson said. “A lot of the calls that leave impacts on dispatchers and firemen and police officers– it’s the call where the bad guys get caught.”
By Amity Downing, Multimedia Journalist
Summer 2012 Public Information Office Intern