PLATTSBURGH — The phone is ringing off the hook, and State Police dispatchers Kathy Owen and Bill Reyell never know what’s going to be on the other end.
Owen has been working as a dispatcher since 1985.
”I’ve seen a lot,” she said.
Over the years, there’s been numerous fatal car accidents, suicides, homicides, burglaries and robberies, Owen said.
Although dispatching can be stressful at times, at least boredom isn’t part of the job, Reyell added.
”It keeps me entertained.”
There are always two people staffing the small room just inside the Plattsburgh State Police barracks.
But as the phones continue to ring, it’s clear there’s not much time for dispatchers to think about anything but the task at hand while they’re at work.
”(There’s) not a lot of time to panic,” Reyell said. “It’s too busy.”
In front of Owen and Reyell is a sea of buttons. Green and red lights flash on the phones, each showing a separate call they have answered.
”We’re kind of the funnel. Everything comes through here,” Reyell said.
There’s no rhyme or reason to the number of calls.
”It can go from quiet to chaotic within seconds,” Owen said. “More serious incidents take priority.”
The dispatchers answer call after call, putting some on hold and moving on to the next caller in case he or she has an emergency.
A dispatcher is a jack-of-all-trades, at once acting as complaint receiver, emergency dispatcher, recorder and receptionist to those who enter the barracks. The door that provides access to the investigators’ offices and troopers’ area is always locked, and the dispatchers can buzz visitors in — once they find a free moment.
It’s multitasking at its best.
The dispatchers communicate with troopers on the road using a radio console next to their phones with dozens of buttons on it.
Not every call will result in the dispatch of a trooper. Many are complaints of small things like a person who appears suspicious but hasn’t actually violated the law. Some callers will request information from the arrest records of an individual, which is not public information.
Reyell and Owen try to mentally keep track of where troopers are patrolling geographically so they can send the trooper who is closest to the site of a report, Reyell said.
A word of advice to callers reporting an incident: “If you’re calling something in, please at least know where you are,” Reyell said.
Many lifelong residents of the area are familiar with landmarks but not street names, and in an emergency, when every second counts, not knowing the location of an incident can be a huge problem.
When a trooper is sent to the site of a possible crime or accident, the dispatchers start a report in the computer with all the information they are able to get from the caller on the phone. The trooper finishes the report after handling the incident, entering it into the computers they have in their patrol cars.
A trooper often substitutes for a dispatcher at shift change.
”We rotate,” State Police Trooper Joseph Liberty said. But it’s clear Liberty doesn’t enjoy his time behind the dispatchers’ desk.
”You couldn’t pay me enough money to do their job every day,” Liberty said, chuckling.
For dispatchers, some calls that come in are hard to shake.
Reyell was a new dispatcher working in Ray Brook in the summer of 1999 when a Lake Placid bank was robbed. The details still stand out in his memory.
Michael Keitz, who was 29 years old at the time, walked into Adirondack Bank in Cold Brook Plaza there and told a teller he would detonate a bomb in a bag he was holding if she didn’t give him cash.
The bag didn’t contain an explosive, but a rock.
After making off with $2,000, Keitz encountered State Police Trooper Michael Andre on the Jackrabbit Trail, about 5 miles from the bank.
Andre was looking for him.
When Keitz pointed a silver-colored toy gun at Andre, he shot him in self-defense.
Keitz recovered in the hospital and underwent psychiatric evaluation, pleading guilty to robbery and grand-larceny charges in Essex County Court. Although he originally faced up to 25 years in state prison, he was sentenced to two to four years on a plea bargain.
From behind a glass partition in December 1999, Keitz told the Press-Republican that he was depressed and committed the robbery in hopes that police would kill him.
Reyell also recalls dispatching police to a burglary in progress several years ago in Indian Lake. It was 3 a.m. and in the middle of a blizzard, he said.
Someone was hammering on the front door of a house that was basically in the middle of nowhere, he said.
The mother was hiding upstairs in a bedroom, and her daughter was crouching behind the couch with an unloaded pistol, Reyell remembered.
Troopers were so far away that it took 40 minutes for them to arrive at the house.
”Those are the calls that stick with you,” Reyell said.
Owen has dispatched so many incidents in her 27 years as a dispatcher that nothing really stands out in her memory, she said.
Although it’s rare, sometimes dispatchers have to talk people through an emergency medical procedure, such as the administration of CPR at the scene of a car accident.
Luckily, EMTs usually arrive within minutes, Reyell said.
These instances are rare, and the Emergency Medical Dispatch protocol manual is so seldom used that it is covered by a thin layer of dust. Dispatchers receive basic medical training, and the manual walks them through a variety of medical emergencies from gunshot wounds to a pregnant woman in labor.
Training is ongoing for dispatchers. CPR procedure alone has changed four times since Reyell was first certified, he said.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
A dispatcher’s job is largely thankless, Reyell said.
”You don’t do the job for any kind of glory,” he said, adding “You’re not going to get rich.”
But as long as Reyell can do at least a little bit of good each day, he’s satisfied.
When he and Owen come to work each day, they’re prepared for everything to change once they step behind the desk.
Reyell described his job simply in just one sentence: “It’s life on fast-forward.”
Email Felicia Krieg: firstname.lastname@example.org