A sticker in a goodie bag says it all: “Heroes wear headsets.”
Those headset-wearing heroes are the men and women taking emergency calls and dispatching law enforcement, fire and/or emergency medical help to those callers.
Last week (April 11-17) was National Public Safety Telecommunications Week. The Contra Costa (Calif.) County Sheriff’s Office started it in 1981, and in 1994, then-President Bill Clinton signed Presidential Proclamation 6667, declaring the second week of April as NPSTW.
It’s the time to celebrate and thank telecommunications personnel across the nation who serve communities, citizens and public safety personnel 24 hours a day, seven days a week, according to npstw.org.
It wasn’t one of those Hallmark holidays that requires a card sent to your favorite dispatcher, although a cake, goodie bags and more were delivered to those front-line first responders in the Sandoval County Regional Emergency Communications Center (SCRECC) at the Rio Rancho Police headquarters on Quantum Drive.
“People here (in the county) have shown their appreciation,” said Randy Vallejos, with well over two decades in the field, who oversees dispatch operations here.
The SCRECC dispatchers take care of nine Sandoval County law enforcement agencies and 17 fire and emergency medical services departments. Six supervisors oversee 35 dispatchers, and the call volume averages about 310,000 calls annually.
Their work isn’t seen by others, but they take stressful calls — and play a vital role behind the scenes.
“The profession has changed over the years,” Vallejos said. “(Dispatchers) hear anything from a bump on the head to somebody hanging.”
Recently, he said, one of his dispatchers talked a couple through the birth of their child, on the side of a highway.
“Today’s dispatchers operate a lot differently than in the past,” he said, and he’s proud of the fact that many of them stay on the job a long time.
“If they stay three years (after being hired), we’ve got them,” he said. “When I got here, there was a lot of tenure — some had been here 10-15 years.”
Vallejos said five new dispatchers begin working at the SCRECC on May 3; he’ll have two vacancies after that.
“We appreciate their work; they help keep us safe on the front lines,” said RRPD Lt. Richard Koschade. “They are our lifeline for the officers — we couldn’t do our job without them.”
Vallejos said SCRECC has state-of-the-art equipment, including the latest in CAD (computer-aided dispatching).
The job requires about eight months of training, and those going through it get the opportunity to hear actual calls.
“This job is not for everyone,” said Vallejos, who has spent the past 2½ years in Rio Rancho. “It takes a toll on people — they listen to everyone’s worst day.”
Vallejos said he looks for critical thinkers who can multi-task, know how to type fast, have a willingness to serve and are prepared to undergo background checks and employment history — and then an interview by a panel — to be considered for a dispatching job.
“This is customer service,” he said, and must be considered a career or profession, not merely a job. Any age or gender may apply.
Shifts may last as long as 14 hours, with a 10-hour shift the norm.
“People value 911 operators — until first responders get on the scene,” he said, so it’s nice to get recognition and be appreciated for what led to that emergency response that may have saved a life.
During the pandemic, he said, his department has striven for workplace safety — dispatchers are masked — and sanitization. He has stressed the importance of employees coming to work “every single day,” with the knowledge that protocols, set by the City of Rio Rancho, seemed to change frequently.
“I had COVID,” Vallejos said. “I was hospitalized and the whole deal.”
Still, his dispatchers were frequently checking up on him and he couldn’t wait to get back to work.
“I love this week, even though it’s just one week,” he said. “We’re doing good things.”
Tips for parents:
Vallejoes said parents should make sure children know their address and phone number, and where their parents (or grandparents) work.
“Location, location, location,” he said, is vital.
“(Dispatchers) do get calls from 4- and 5-year-old kids,” he said.