SOUTHERN INDIANA — When Megan Conlen answers the phone, it isn't always good news. That's because a lot of the people who call her are in emergency situations, and need help immediately.
Conlen, a dispatch supervisor at the Clark County Office of Emergency Communications, is one of 24 dispatchers and call takers who serve as the first line of assistance for people in dire situations. Over the span of 12-hour shifts, they sit in a darkened room fielding calls for about everything from parking situations to domestic disputes, fires and rescues to cardiac arrests.
The job isn't easy, but it's necessary in protecting the people of Southern Indiana.
"They're the most important part of what we do, hands down," said Jeffersonville Fire Department Sgt. Justin Ames. "Without the 911 call-takers, we wouldn't know where to go, we wouldn't have the information before we got there — which is vital."
Police, fire and EMS crews showed their appreciation all week, as part of National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week. They brought lunch and other goodies. Friday, Ames brought a feast from Mission Barbecue, sponsored by the City of Jeffersonville.
Likewise in New Albany, where there are 12 dispatchers, Police Chief Todd Bailey brought breakfast for the crews this week, and Mission Barbecue provided a lunch.
“Our communications team [is] every bit as important part of our team as police officers," Bailey said in an email. “They are embraced by our entire staff as guardians of the community's safety."
When a person in Clark County calls 911 to report a police, fire or EMS emergency, one of the team members takes that calls, gets as much information as possible while staying on the line with the caller. Meanwhile, a dispatchers passes the information to the agency needed.
"If you can imagine being in a room and all you have is somebody telling you what's going on, you have to visualize everything in your head," Ames said. "So for them to be able to do that, stay calm and keep people calm on the telephone, is a tremendous task.
"If somebody just said 'there's an emergency at the corner of Market and Spring,' we'd be unprepared. So with them taking all the information they do, it allows the first responders to be as informed as they can be to go to work."
Conlen knows it's her job to be the communicator who help protect the community, and it's a role she takes seriously. What it means is constantly moving to get the first responders where they need to be.
"It's a lot of multitasking — doing 10 things at once and not finishing the first one before you start the second one and fourth one," Conlen said. "[It's] juggling all the things you have to have to get done in a few moments."
And as this first line of defense, the dispatchers and call-takers often don't see the resolution of the situations. They just move on to the next thing, keep sending emergency crews where they're needed.
"There's not a lot of closure in dispatch," she said. "We dispatch it out and never find out what happens."
Well, not never. Conlen said they're lucky to have a good connection to first responders, where they can sometimes find out how a situation turned out.
"If they have stuff they can tell us, they'll tell us," she said. "Because sometime that closure is needed ... sometimes it's better not knowing."
To counter the emotional demands of the job, Conlen said dispatchers relieve stress in a variety of ways — some practice shooting, some focus on crafts and volunteering, others put their energy into their families.
"We all have a different way of decompressing," she said, adding that when the crew is together, just talking it out is a huge help.
"It's a great outlet," she said. "We all know what each other are dealing with at the moment."
Ames said he's glad to get more recognition to the dispatchers, who often work behind the scenes — unnoticed players in emergency and life-saving situations. He said they deserve this kind of credit all year long.
"They're the unsung heroes," he said. "They're our brothers and sisters just like police and EMS are. One week out of the year to show appreciation is not enough."