Tex. Emergency Dispatchers Learn How to Help Other Agencies in Disasters
Dec. 02—The Sherman Police Department welcomed emergency dispatchers from across the region and across the country to its headquarters on Thursday for a training program meant to give them the skills needed to deploy to and assist other agencies in the event of a major disaster or emergency.
The Telecommunicator Emergency Response Taskforce training, a federally-backed program, was attended by nearly two dozen dispatchers who came from as far away as Fort Worth and California. Participants learned about the different protocols between states, were provided useful tips on travel and heard the testimony of those who have been deployed through the program.
"You're doing so much more than just going there," Sherman Police Dispatcher Desiree Harston said. "You are learning about other people, that not every agency operates the same. What we are used to doing here, you can throw it out the window when you get there. You're going to be having a whole new experience."
City of Prosper Communications Officer Roxanna Johnson led the course and said while many people might not think of dispatchers as first responders, they are the first to learn of an emergency situation and often provide lifesaving assistance.
"Dispatchers are the first first-responders," Johnson said. "When someone calls 9-1-1 they're getting us, they're not getting the officer who's coming or the paramedic who's coming. And a lot of dispatchers are medically trained. So, we deliver babies, we give CPR and we do it all over the phone."
Johnson explained that dispatchers have many hurdles to overcome when asked to assist another agency, including exhausting trips, long work hours, bare-bones accommodations and even hostility from the very dispatchers they're meant to relieve. After assisting dispatchers in the wake of Hurricane Isaac in 2012 and Hurricane Harvey earlier this year, Johnson said that resistance often stems from the fact that local dispatchers feel protective over the first responders they work with or because they too have lost their homes and even loved ones.
"With Isaac, they didn't know we were coming and they didn't really want us there in the beginning, so that was difficult," Johnson said. "In the end it was ultimately one of the most stressful times in my life, but also one of the most rewarding because we did help."
Harston, who has served as a Sherman dispatcher for four years, said she became interested in obtaining her TERT certification after the Texoma region was hit by heavy rains and extensive flooding earlier this year. She said Sherman dispatchers had a difficult time keeping up with all of the emergency calls, but their neighbors to the north had it even worse.
"One thing that really lit the fire under me is when Denison's dispatch flooded," Harston said. "Not only were they dealing with stress of having to move and being displaced. This was their hometown, they were flooded and they were going through this, too. We were only 10 or 15 miles away and that was something we could have gone and helped out with had we been certified."
Johnson said while dispatchers already face numerous challenges in their daily work, the TERT program would help them not only prepare for a worst-case scenario but excel in it, too.
"We're a rare group of people," Johnson said. "We hear from humanity at its worst. No one calls 9-1-1 because they're having a great day, but we soldier through."