The main room in the Carson City Communications Center, also simply known as dispatch, looked like something on a tropical island: six boutiques of flowers, five parrots hanging from the ceiling, three skeleton pirates brandishing swords, two (two-dimensional) barrels of rum and a single package of chocolate-dipped fruit, freshly delivered by the United Postal Service.
The parrots and pirates? To lighten the mood. The flowers and fruit? Gifts from all across the city, thanking the dispatchers for their hard work. Today marks the end of Dispatcher Appreciation Week, which began Monday.
“It’s a nice week because you feel so appreciated,” communications manager Karin Mracek said.
Generally, when Mracek calls an employee into her office, it’s for foreboding reasons.
“Most of the time when I talk to them (privately), it’s when a mistake’s been made,” she said. “If there’s a whole week we can show appreciation, it’s a great thing.”
The dispatch center is the place where every emergency that deputies or firefighters respond to begins.
Dispatchers’ jobs are not simple. When a new hire comes on, the training period lasts six to nine months. However, it’s more than a year before most new dispatchers feel comfortable enough.
“They’re doing a slew of jobs,” Mracek said.
She should know. She has been with the center the longest of any employee there: 23 years.
Some of the dispatchers also are trainers. Others teach classes. All have three to four projects they’re working on.
“Everything begins at that dispatch center,” Sheriff Ken Furlong said. “It is relentless. On average, they responded to 14,200 calls a month last year.
“I have nothing but the highest level of respect (for them).”
Kelly Mead worked in Alaska dispatching helicopters and other units as part of an oil operation, but nothing prepared her for what being a Carson City dispatcher would entail when she started in 2001.
She likened the experience to parachuting.
“You think you know what it’s going to be like until you actually jump out of the plane. Coming in, one has these ideas (of the job). When when they make it through training, they’re enlightened on what we actually do,” Mead said. “They reflect back on ... the perception versus what the reality is.”
When someone calls 911, he or she is not having a good day.
“We’re the true first responders,” she said. “Without this center, the fire trucks don’t go, the ambulances don’t go, the firefighters don’t go. You’ve got to think quick, cool-headed.”
The job has a certain level of innate negativity.
“Ninety-five percent of what we do is negative in some way,” Mead said. “We learn to adapt. A lot of times, we deal with the same person, but still, we process every call on an equal basis.”
After a mere 10 or 11 months, Mead was asked to become a trainer. Her first trainee was successful, but he wanted to change his career to law enforcement.
Mead’s co-worker Donna Milton vividly remembers the old dispatch center, located in a former garage.
“Bugs fell down” onto the dispatchers and the tiles were coming up beneath their feet, Milton said. The dispatchers, with radios blaring, sat nearly atop one another.
“It was terrible,” she said. “It was really noisy, hectic, really a terrible place.”
Now Milton sits in a secured center, with enough space between stations, and with pirates on the walls. She started as a dispatcher in 1983 in Arizona. A single mother with three children younger than 6, she needed a good job and dispatching fit the bill.
She had been working in the jail in Flagstaff, but her co-worker persuaded her to make the switch and she didn’t look back. Milton was worried at first, about having to talk to the public and responders all day. She made the switch, with her mom and dad helping with babysitting. Moving among day shift, swing shift and graveyard, she sometimes only managed four to five hours of sleep every two days.
She then met a man whom she would marry and move with to Reno, himself a Care Flight pilot, in 1992. From there, she became a trainer and then a supervisor in Carson City.
“Some days, I want to be a regular, old dispatcher,” she said. “There’s some days I love what I do.”