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UNDER THE HEADSET: A Day in the Life

Will Grace take the leap to a new career as a public safety telecommunicator?
By Matt Schreiner
Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in a series of fictional dramatizations about the trials and tribulations of a public safety telecommunicator. The story is fictional, but the circumstances are real for many employed in public safety communications.
From her vantage point in the parking lot, Grace could clearly see the entryway to the building she hoped would lead to a new career and a bright future for her and her 3-year-old son, Nick.
Blazoned across the glass of the door in bright, gold lettering it read: “Taggart County Emergency Communications”.
As she sat in the front seat of her car, nervously contemplating walking through that door, she reminisced about how she had come to this moment.
In the last four years, following high school, Grace had spent time trying to figure out exactly what it was she wanted to do. She had worked a few office jobs but found them monotonous, and the pay wasn’t enough to support her and Nick. So she had started to work a couple nights a week at the local 24-hour diner to supplement her income.
Eventually, it became clear to her that being a waitress, while not ideal, enabled her to bring home enough money to make ends meet, and she enjoyed the work. It was much faster paced than office work, and she found that she really enjoyed interacting with the patrons of the restaurant and providing them with good service. But she knew she could do more, and there was something out there that held more promise, and more security, for her. She just hadn’t found it yet.
Being a single mom and working full-time certainly presented challenges. Between her mom and dad, and her sister Teri, who was married with two children of her own, and Nick’s dad, they all managed to ensure that Nick was being taken care of. She knew she was lucky to have them, but really wanted to be able to take care of Nick on her own.
One evening, one of the regulars, who happened to be a cop, had asked her, “Grace, what’s a bright young girl like you doing in a place like this?” His name was Mark, and Grace had always liked him. He wasn’t aloof like some of the other cops who frequented the diner. She guessed he was in his mid-to-late forties, and he often came into the diner with his wife and kids on weekends. He was personable, and was always in a good mood. But something about this question made her feel defensive.
“Mostly, dealing with knuckleheads like you,” she responded with a wry smile.
He laughed, and said, “Sorry, I didn’t mean anything by it, but there’s a couple openings for dispatchers at the 9-1-1 center, and I thought you might be interested. You’d be perfect for that job, and they have good benefits, too. You should look into it.”
Grace was intrigued, but responded, “Wow, not sure I could do THAT job! Sounds complicated, and stressful.”
“It’s challenging work, no question about it. But you’re quick and able to think on your feet. I see how you handle some of us ‘knuckleheads,’ and that’s a big part of the job.” He reached into his front pocket, took out his notepad and began to write. “Look, here’s the website to go to and get the process started, if you’re interested. Put my name in as a reference, and I’ll let them know to keep an eye out for your application. Let me know what you want to do, but you need to act soon if you want to get in.”
He got up and left the paper on the counter with his tip. Grace eyed it, laying there on the counter; she scooped it up, along with the money, and forgot about it as she went about her duties for the rest of the shift.
At the end of the night, as she was counting her tips, she came across Mark’s note. Something about it piqued her interest. What did she have to lose? She made up her mind to at least go to the website and see what it was all about.
The next morning, she woke up and after getting Nick started off on his day, sat down at her computer and brought up the website that Mark had provided. She clicked on the “careers” link and read the job description.
Telecommunicator, Level II
Taggart County Emergency Communications currently has openings for entry-level public safety telecommunicators. Essential responsibilities of the 9-1-1 public safety telecommunicator include:
– Receiving and processing 9-1-1 calls
– Dispatching emergency services to specified locations
– Transmitting vital information to emergency personnel
Candidates for this position should have excellent communication skills and show great attention to detail. Submit your application now to become a 9-1-1 Dispatcher with the County of Taggart using the link below!
 “Well,” she thought to herself, “I don’t know anything about most of that, but if Mark thinks I’d do well at it, let’s give it a try.” So she spent the next hour or so setting about completing the application. When she had it completed, she held her mouse over the “submit” button for what seemed like a long time. She knew that what she was about to do could change her life forever. For some reason, it seemed like a big moment in her life, but she didn’t quite know why it felt that way.
Just then Nick came into the room. “Mommy? Can you help me with this drawing?” She quickly clicked the button and turned her attention to Nick and his drawing.
The next time she saw Mark at the diner, she told him she had applied. She thought he was more excited about the idea than she was!
“That’s GREAT!” he said. “I’ll make sure the right people know and get you to the top of the list!”
Later that same day she received a phone call from the County.
“Hello, this is Grace.”
“Hi, Grace. This is Pat from Taggart County Emergency Communications. Have you got a few minutes to talk about the telecommunicator role you applied for?”
Grace’s heart was racing. She tried to remain calm, and said “Sure.”
They spent about 10 minutes talking, but that was enough to know she was excited about the idea of starting a new career. Pat brought up the sometimes long hours and the fact she might have to work overnight shifts and that she was not always going to have holidays and weekends off but would be paid at time and a half. She responded that she actually had similar hours at the restaurant now. She remembers thinking, “Wow! Getting paid extra to work holidays! Woohoo!”
Then Pat said her restaurant job was one of the reasons that they found her application so interesting. He explained that the skills and temperament people develop waiting tables are similar to those required to be a successful telecommunicator.
When Grace asked why, Pat said, “Well, first, you have a LOT of contact with the public, and people who work for tips learn how to manage all different types of people, including unhappy customers. Second, you have to learn to prioritize tasks and remember details about several things going on at the same time. Third, as you mentioned, restaurant folks have already gotten used to working hours that others might find unreasonable. We have several operators who have a history of working in the restaurant industry”
Grace had never thought about that. She had developed the ability to calm down angry customers, was pretty good at being able to make sure her customers never waited for anything, and even had developed the ability to take orders without having to write anything down. I guess Mark might be on to something. Maybe she really did have skills!
Pat told her if she was interested there would be a “testing” and interview in two weeks at the emergency communications center. Grace said, “I’ll be there!”
Grace arrived at the designated place and time. She walked into a large training room with rows of tables and computers.
A woman named Susan asked her to sign in and take a seat at any open position. There were about 15 other people there. She was nervous and excited, and her “butterflies,” as she called them, began doing somersaults in her stomach.
Susan explained that she was one of the supervisors at the ECC, and she had the additional role of being the training coordinator. Grace liked her right away. She had a calm, easy manner about her that made Grace feel as though she would trust her with just about anything, including Nick, and that was saying something.
Susan ran the test, and it lasted about two hours. It consisted of five sections: reading comprehension, listening, problem solving, prioritizing and multi-tasking.
After the test, she sat with two other ECC supervisors. They talked about the long hours, the challenges of being a single mother, and some of the other challenges she would face like angry callers, difficult officers and so on. But they also described how rewarding the job could be, and that it was a real opportunity to actually make a difference in the lives of people in the community.
On the way home, her head was reeling. She was not sure she had really followed during the listening test. She was pretty sure the noises coming into her ears through the headset were voices, but it came at her so fast and furious she wasn’t 100% sure she had captured it all correctly. It was sure a lot different from taking orders for breakfast and coffee!
During the next couple of weeks she and Mark talked about what the job was like, and the more she learned, the more she was certain she really wanted that job. It sounded exciting and challenging. While Mark hadn’t sugar-coated it for her, it certainly sounded better than anything the restaurant had to offer.
About a week later, she got the call that they wanted her to begin training the first week of next month, and her heart soared! She immediately found Nick and gave him the tightest hug she had ever given him, tears of joy running down her cheeks.
“What’s the matter, Mommy?” Nick asked. “Nothing, Baby! Everything’s going to be all right …”
As she sat in her car, getting herself ready to go through that door, her butterflies started to do their somersaults again.
“You can do this, girl” she thought to herself. She got out of the car, walked up the stairs and read the door one more time: “Taggart County Emergency Communications”. She said out loud: “Well, this oughta be interesting …” She opened the door and walked in.
Find a new adventure every month from Grace’s life as a telecommunicator at
Matt Schreiner has passionately worked for over 25 years to provide public safety with innovative technology solutions and tools to enable them to meet their life-safety mission, and is currently lending his talents to Motorola Solutions.

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