Placing a call for help for 911 staff

With operator shortage, city police launch drive to recruit new employees

April 20, 2002|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

The calls rolled in one after the other: Drug dealers on a street corner; a man having a seizure; someone wearing a bandanna breaking into a Southeast Baltimore home; a child watching a fight outside his window; a man scared by someone outside his front door flashing a gun.

Every day is like this for Valerie Baylor, 43, a veteran 911 operator for the Baltimore Police Department. For eight hours, Baylor answers unending calls about Baltimore's most serious problems. The volume does not bother her; dealing with people in extreme situations does not faze her; and Baltimore police are desperately seeking more workers like her.

Baylor is one of 64 operators who work in a dimly lighted room at city police headquarters. Last year they handled 1.2 million calls to 911.

But police say they are short 13 operators and yesterday launched a recruitment drive.

Police also are seeking more dispatchers, who relay information to officers on the street and tell them where to go. With 72 on staff, the department is down nine.

Police are so short-handed that they have begun forcing operators and dispatchers to work mandatory overtime, adding even more pressure to a stressful job. Police say service has not been affected by the shortage, but they worry that the staff will not be able to keep up with the increasing demands of overtime.

Police could have trouble finding enough applicants, given the rigorous background checks, which about 15 percent of candidates pass, and the relatively low salaries. Operators start at $22,575 a year and dispatchers at $27,785 a year, officials said; police are asking city officials to significantly increase those salaries.

"We're looking for someone who cares about the city, is credible, and has integrity and computer skills, and is trainable," said Maj. Michael H Hilliard, who heads the department's communications division. "Despite the stress, you know you are doing something on a daily basis that keeps the citizens of Baltimore safe."

Officials in jurisdictions surrounding Baltimore also report shortages in operators and dispatchers, though only Anne Arundel County - which is short eight workers - is down enough to force operators to work mandatory overtime.

In 1995, the Baltimore 911 center got 1.3 million calls, and the year after began operating a 311 center to handle nonemergency calls. That reduced 911 calls by several hundred thousand yearly - in 1998, the unit received about 950,000 calls.

But over the next few years, 911 calls increased for unknown reasons, Hilliard said, putting more stress on dispatchers and operators, who answer about 3,200 calls a day.

The calls are routed to operators by computer. When one is sent to Baylor, a recording of her voice answers before she gets on the line: "Baltimore City 911. Operator 1222. Where is the emergency?"

That's always the first - and essential - question, Baylor said. If the caller gets cut off, police can still be sent to the address reported.

If the caller needs an ambulance or firefighters, Baylor quickly transfers the call to Fire Department dispatchers, who also work in the Police Department's communications center.

If the caller needs police, Baylor starts asking questions. On Wednesday morning, for example, a man in West Baltimore called to complain about drug dealers on his block. They don't live here, the man said, and he told Baylor where the dealer hides his stash of drugs.

The caller also complained about police not responding quickly enough. "You're supposed to be the Police Department," the man said. Baylor listened and asked more questions. All the while, she typed the man's information into a computer for dispatchers.

"I try not to vent along with him," she said. "All you can do is talk. He calmed down at the end."

Baylor joined the communications center 16 years ago after her brother, a Baltimore police officer, told her it was an interesting career. Baylor is a quiet woman who wears a lanyard that proclaims "I love Jesus" and almost always sits with a blanket on her lap to keep her legs warm.

Baylor said she grows weary of Baltimore's seamy side, hearing children calling for help as they duck from bullets; children calling as parents beat them; women calling as husbands chase them; shooting victims calling for an ambulance; frustrated residents calling to report drug dealers over and over again.

"You see how some people are living. It's a mess," she said. "Drugs, people fighting, they are routine calls. ... This makes you see the state the world is in."

Even so, Baylor enjoys her work, especially when she helps somebody. "If you help just that one person," she said, "it is rewarding."

Dispatchers say their jobs are stressful in a different way. They monitor four computer screens - showing them who is on the police radio, where and what the "units" are doing, and what calls are pending - all while relaying information over the police radio to dozens of officers on the street. They also quickly dispatch officers to help those in trouble.

"You have to be very attentive," said Janice Ford, a veteran dispatcher who was once a 911 operator. "This job isn't for everybody. If you can't do a lot of things at one time, it just isn't for you. You have to be able to work under pressure."

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