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Fairbanks 911 dispatcher handles emergencies in stride

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Posted: Monday, May 30, 2011 11:40 pm | Updated: 12:59 pm, Wed Jan 16, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — Jessica Jensen might be the voice on the other end of the call on the worst day of your life.

As a 911 dispatcher, it is her job to send ambulances, fire trucks and police cars to people in need. She’s trained to give frightened people directions on how to perform CPR, face a hostage situation or assist a woman giving birth.

During the time she was interviewed for this story, Jensen’s collegues took one call about a burglary in Birchwood Homes and stood by as another dispatch service sent an ambulance from the University Fire Department.

Most of the calls dispatch receives are from a business line, not emergency 911 calls.

A woman Jensen is training to be a dispatcher got a non-emergency question from someone who wanted to know if he could get a restraining order against someone whose name he did not know. Jensen suggested her trainee refer the caller to the court system.

“People often come to the police for the answer to everything,” she said. “They can do a lot, but they can’t do everything.

Jensen’s office, above the Police Department on Cushman Street, dispatches for Fairbanks police and eight fire departments. It works closely with Alaska State Troopers, Fort Wainwright Military Police and the University Fire Department, which have their own dispatch services.

Jensen sat a desk with seven computer screens and two mice. One screen maps 911 calls as they come in and shows the location of emergency vehicles. The location of cell phone calls are approximated based on the location of cell phone towers. Other screens monitor radio frequencies and serve as her telephone. One monitors security alarms for large buildings like the Carlson Center.

Beside her are are city and borough maps on rollers for quick reference or in the event of an power outgage.

A TV had the Food Network on, but no one was watching it.

Jensen has been a dispatcher long enough that she was not distracted by the chatter of multiple radios and flashing lights on her monitors.

She started in Fairbanks in 2000. Before that, she dispatched in North Pole. She’s originally from Florida and found herself in Fairbanks when she came to Eielson Air Force Base where she also had a dispatch-type job.

“It’s fun,” she said of her job. “No day is ever the same. It’s a rush and it’s nice to know you’ve affected somebody.”

Although she enjoys it, she said there’s no doubt it’s a stressful job.

“It takes the right kind of person (to be a dispatcher),” she said. “A Type A person where you want to be in control and know what’s going on.”

The best calls are emergencies with happy endings, she said. While Jensen has worked dispatch, she has twice taken calls about women in labor who sucessfully gave birth before emergency assistance arrived.

The CPR calls are the hardest.

It is difficult to explain how to perform a lifesaving technique over the phone, she said. It’s also difficult to make people realize she can’t make the ambulance arrive any faster.

“The people have tunnel vision,” she said. “The public calls and they think it’s an instantaneous thing. But we need to know what to send. The more they can tell us the more we can help.”

Dispatchers respond to calls based on proven formulas. At Jensen’s desk, she keeps a book with specific questions and scripts for different emergencies. There’s a page for choking victim, a car accident, a snake bite.

Although each day as a dispatcher is different, there are patterns, Jensen said. Many daytime calls are about domestic violence. The evenings, including weekday evenings, are busier and are filled with calls about DUIs, fights and problems with inebriates.

Dispatchers receive an average of 100 to 150 calls per day, but the number can fluctuate.

“Whenever there’s a large motor vehicle accident or structure fire, we get inundated,” Jensen said.

When a large brush fire broke in south Fairbanks earlier this month, dispatchers received more than 50 calls in a matter of minutes.

At any given time, there are a minimum of three dispatchers on duty. Optimum staffing is four dispatchers.

When there are a lot of 911 calls, some will not get picked up in time. Callers can get an disconcerting message that emergency services are busy. But dispatchers are required to return every missed phone call or hang-up 911 call.

Because every 911 call must be returned, Jensen said it would help enormously if people who dial 911 accidently would stay on the line instead of hanging up.

“We have to call you back anyway,” Jensen said. “It just makes it easier.”

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