David Whitham thought it was a routine traffic stop.
Unknown to him, a few hours earlier the driver had used a handgun to commit an armed carjacking. Now it was under the seat—within arms reach—in the car Whitham, then an officer with the Santa Barbara Police Department, pulled over in a dark area of the city.
"An astute dispatcher had just run the plate," he said, explaining that the information he received allowed him to initiate a felony stop and apprehend the carjacker. "But if it wasn't for that dispatcher running that plate and getting me that information quickly, it might have turned out differently."
For Whitham, interim director for Hancock College's Lompoc Valley Center Public Safety Training Center, emergency dispatchers play just as important of a role in responding to emergency and nonemergency calls as firefighters, police officers and emergency medical service crews across the county. Like the college's well-established police and fire academies, courses at the Public Safety Training Center teach their students how to be the calm and collected voice behind every 911 call.
Pairing hands-on training simulations with a traditional classroom environment, students in the college's basic dispatcher course learn how to funnel all the information firefighters and police officers need to respond to an incident while staying safe. Whitham said the course provides would-be dispatchers and interested students the opportunity to explore a career in law enforcement.
"During high school, I was a Police Explorer in Paso Robles, so I knew that was kind of where I wanted to go with my career," Clayton Cullen said. "I talked with a few people that worked in the police department in Paso Robles that said they started as dispatchers, so I thought it was a good idea."
Entering the program in 2012, Cullen paid his way through the course in hopes of landing a job after graduation. Now employed as a dispatcher by the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office, he credits the course and Jeanne Dague, his instructor, with setting the course of his career.
"The class is really set to expose them to the world of dispatching," explained Dague, a longtime dispatcher in San Luis Obispo. "It doesn't provide training because all agencies are different, but it gives them the basics."
Accredited by California's Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST), Hancock's dispatcher course provides the important certification rookie dispatchers need to earn during their first year. In addition to fielding calls and transmitting information, the course teaches students proper decision-making and the fundamentals of public safety dispatching.
For David Washington, a former custody deputy with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office, the course provided him the chance to stay in the law enforcement profession after sustaining an injury. Now a call taker, Washington helps county's firefighters, sheriff's deputies and EMS respond to minor incidents and major emergencies.
"It's challenging working the phone console for 12 hours," he said, especially during incidents (like vehicle collisions) that prompt multiple requests for service. "[Callers] don't really understand how it works, but there's no instruction manual on how to call 911."
The job isn't for everyone, with some graduates often bowing out after completing the course. Though Dague called the job stressful, adding that dispatchers need to be well-rested and "mentally on" in order to perform at an optimal level, she said it is important to have properly trained dispatchers behind the console.
"You don't want someone in there that's sleepy, not having a good day or stressed out," she said. "Officer safety is a big priority for us."