A woman with an Indian accent yells frantically into the phone, “Come! Come! You have to come now, please! It’s my daughter, she’s having a seizure!” In the background, a man cries out and the woman begins to shriek her daughter’s name.
Ceal Hartman, a call-taker in San Mateo County’s award-winning emergency dispatch center, deals with this kind of thing every day.
After taking down the woman’s address and dispatching an ambulance, Hartman clicks on the seizure tab in her database.
“We’re gonna help you with that,” she says in a smooth, but firm voice. “Is your daughter still seizing?”
Over the next few minutes, Hartman walks the worried mother through the seizure protocols, at the same time gathering pertinent information to relay to fire first-responders and paramedics en route to the call.
Finally, the girl stops seizing. In just more than 10 minutes, the paramedics arrive. Hartman unceremoniously disconnects the call.
She has three hours left in her 12-hour shift.
Seconds later, the phone rings again.
This is the kind of work that recently won the 54-person San Mateo County Office of Public Safety Communications renewed accreditation as one of the 106 best emergency medical dispatch centers in the world, a distinction awarded by the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch and shared by centers in Alameda and Santa Clara counties.
The accreditation is based on how calm dispatchers remain, how quickly they handle calls, and how diligently they follow scripted questions and instructions that help them assess the type and severity of medical emergencies.
The nine on-duty dispatchers sit in an underground room in the County Center fielding calls under dim light, kept low to minimize stress and eye strain.
The operators handle the emergency fire, police, medical and 911 calls for a number of police and all the fire departments around the county, and will begin handling police dispatch for San Carlos in November.
The dispatch center is one of the state’s most advanced, and “played a major role in the San Bruno event,” coordinating many agencies sent to deal with the Sept. 9 pipeline explosion, said Jason Sorrick, spokesman for American Medical Response, a national company that operates ambulances for the county.
While call-takers go through considerable training, it’s not a job for everyone, Hartman said.
“We’re the calm, collected ones that don’t freak out, so we gravitate to this kind of work,” she said. “This isn’t necessarily a job where you say, ‘When I grow up I want to be a dispatcher,’ but when you fall into it, you kind of stay because it is very rewarding,” said Communications Center Director Jaime Young, adding that the average dispatcher sticks with the department for well over 10 years.
Dispatchers regularly deal with high-stress calls, but the hardest thing about the job is accurately assessing a situation you cannot see, said Hartman, who hunts for key information like whether weapons are involved or what suspicious vehicles look like.
“If I can ID a call correctly, then I won’t send ’em out with lights and sirens blowing through red lights for a stubbed toe,” she said.
Dispatchers in San Mateo County’s Office of Public Safety Communications say they don’t remember most of the emergency calls they get, but some are hard to forget.
Sandy Varner, who started fielding calls in 1985, remembers one of her first.
A woman reported that her ex-boyfriend was on his way to her house to shoot her new boyfriend. Varner dispatched police, but they were hesitant to intervene, she said.
“I could hear shots fired ... and the suspect had the bullet ricochet into his face.” By the end of the call, one man was dead, another injured, and Varner was still on the line.
The most-common calls to dispatchers involve falls by the elderly, altered levels of consciousness, traffic incidents, thefts, fights or just simple information requests. Funny calls however, help dispatchers manage the stress.
Ceal Hartman recalls a 30-minute call with a man who only spoke Swahili. She had to contact an interpretation company to get a translation.
Accents are also tough, said dispatch supervisor Dave Vogt, who once received a call from a Filipino citizen about “seizures in the chest,” which turned out to be “scissors in the chest.”
Another caller spoke of “chicken breath,” leaving Vogt at a loss until he used alternate questions to determine that the woman was saying, “She can’t breathe.”
Terrie Cardoza, who has been a dispatcher for 15 years, said she has had people call to report things as simple as swallowing toothpaste or locking themselves inside their car.
While she may not save lives every day, Cardoza said at least the job never gets boring.
“You couldn’t make that stuff up,” she said.
The San Mateo County Office of Public Safety Communications sends first-responders to the scene. Here are stats from 2010:
$6.9M: Center’s 2010 budget
346,760: Calls received
64,118: 911 calls received
27,279: 911 emergency medical service calls
5,800: 911 fire calls
31,039: 911 police calls
30,941: Hospital transports
Highest call volume: Varies, but spikes occur during rush hour on stormy winter days
Provides dispatch services to:
- All county fire departments
- East Palo Alto, Half Moon Bay, Broadmoor, Millbrae and transit police, and Sheriff’s Office
- American Medical Response ambulance service
- Peninsula Humane Society
Source: Office of Public Safety Communications