There is a third public safety service in our community, one that makes the work of the Fire and Police Departments possible. When you need service and call 911, you reach one of the employees of the Public Safety Communications Department (PSCD), which was formed in 2017. A couple of members of my staff made a visit to the center last week.
Earlier this year, TPD Deputy Chief Chad Kasmar was appointed interim director of PSCD, our 911 call center. I’ve worked with him since he was a captain and I have a lot of respect for him. Although he’s from outside the call center, he understands many of the difficulties they face. He also has been able to use his relationships with TPD to solve some problems as well.
By the way, the people that answer the phones when you call 911 are not called “operators,” they are called “call takers.”
Many of our departments have staffing shortages, and PSCD is not immune to this. They are at about 40% of the personnel they need. These shortages lead to stress for employees and supervisorial issues. In addition, there are questions about whether the training adequately prepares call takers for the technical and stress issues encountered on the job. These issues combined lead to retention problems
Director Kasmar and his assistant, Sharon McDonough (who is an assistant fire chief) are working to improve conditions at the center. One important thing is psychological support services. At one time, the people who answered 911 calls were either Police or Fire Department employees and they had access to the same psychological services available to members of those departments. Unfortunately, this has not been true now that it is its own department. I’m glad that the new leadership has made getting this sort of support a priority.
Kasmar has tapped off-duty officers to help staff the center. This has helped give call takers a break when they need one, especially after a difficult call.
Despite all of the pressure, the call takers do an amazing job. They have about fifteen seconds to get the initial information to either police and fire and then continue the conversation to make sure that whatever department responds has all the information they need. The call taker has to do all of this while typing information into several databases and keeping track of information on six screens.
One of my staff members recently listened in on few calls. The call taker had 8 years on the job and was calm and comforting to the callers. He handled two calls, one involving a store owner that got assaulted by a customer and another involving an armed man in someone’s yard, and was able to get a surprising amount of information from frightened callers. During the call, he was able to look up address and license plate data. It’s a lot to expect of a single person, but he was able to do it and probably did it a couple of dozen times that day.
The call center is located in the basement of the Thomas Price Center on South Park and will soon be moving into a larger space in that building. It will help to not only give our call takers more room to work, but will also have a better area and equipment for training. I’m proud of what our employees in PSCD are able to do every day, and I will work to make sure that they get resources to do even better.