Dispatchers: Unsung heroes and a 'lifeline' for LEOs

There is a special connection between police dispatchers and police officers

Those who work in the public safety and law enforcement realm are committed, dedicated and usually passionate about what they do. They work in a reality-based environment comprised of situations and events that most in the civilian world have never been exposed to. 

There is a special connection between police dispatchers and police officers. Strong bonds evolve from partnerships and the allegiance that develops as a result of the interconnected working relationships. 

The radio is a cop’s steadfast companion. It is a vital connection to the dispatcher who plays a critical role in keeping the officers on the street safe. Dispatchers can provide the necessary information to all units and to those responding to the scene of a specific call and incident.  

Dispatcher’s Ear 
The dispatcher’s job is highly stressful. Dispatchers have to possess keen listening skills and be excellent communicators. They must have a “dispatcher’s ear” — listening to what is going on in the background. Moreover, dispatchers must be able to do several things at once. Due to the stressful nature of the job, dispatchers must possess effective coping skills to be able to handle the pressure.

Dispatchers have a close link to police officers and often they feel responsible for them. Padty Mayhew-Davis has served as a dispatcher for 15 years and is a Communications Training Officer for the Alexandria (Va.) Police Department. She always wanted to be a cop but due to a knee injury was unable to pursue that career path. She became a dispatcher instead. 

“This is one way I can still help people,” Mayhew said. She recognizes the importance of maintaining her emotional equilibrium while working. 

“You can’t let your emotions affect or cloud what you’re doing in your job because it could impede the outcome to citizens or officers,” Mayhew said.

Mayhew is known to be very concerned about all the officers she works with. If an officer is injured on duty during her shift, she remains on high alert. “I deal with the situation until it is over,” she said. After the incident is over, Mayhew insists she must talk to the officers involved. “I have to know for myself they are OK. I get teased for being over-protective,” she said.

Mayhew has frequently been out on the street. “I used to do a lot of ridealongs, and I loved it. You get to see what they (the officers) are doing,” she said.  

Keeping Officers Safe 
Jill Price, currently a Communications Facility Coordinator for the Department of Public Works in Milwaukee and a former Telecommunications Specialist and Dispatcher for the Milwaukee Police Department, agrees with Mayhew. Her motivation was fueled by knowing that her actions assisted in keeping officers safe, and she liked helping them. “I was able to provide the resources. I was a lifeline for the officers on the street,” she said. 

“Some officers don’t realize how important they are to dispatchers. It is a big deal to us,” said Celeste Anne Smelser Baldino, a supervisor in Public Safety Communications for the UVA-Albemarle County Emergency Communications Center in Charlottesville, VA. She serves as a working supervisor and rotates through all the posts within the center.

Stacy Starkloff, a police dispatcher for the Baltimore, MD 911 Center, recalled a time when an officer did not answer the radio, and his car was abandoned. No one knew where he was, and the helicopter was dispatched to search for him. “It was really scary for a while — not knowing where he was at,” Starkloff said. 

It was subsequently discovered that he experienced a medical emergency and was in the back of an ambulance being treated. 

Starkloff acknowledged that dispatchers hear a lot of things that would be difficult for most to hear. 

“You have to have a backbone,” she said.

Michael Slater, a State Police Dispatcher II and Supervisor of the Dispatch Center for the Massachusetts State Police, has been a dispatcher for 30 years. Well versed in his specialty, he is keenly attuned to the challenges law enforcement officers face daily. When he was a line dispatcher from 1986-1999, he particularly enjoyed the interaction with the troopers on the road.

On the day of the Boston Marathon bombings, Slater was getting ready to leave for the day at the end of his shift. When the incident broke, he rapidly engaged. There was a call-out for explosive and bomb detection duties by K-9, the Feds came in from Rhode Island, and the Boston Police, the State Police and the FBI set up a joint command post at Logan Airport where dispatchers were also needed.  All these efforts had to be coordinated through his communications center. 

“I had dispatchers everywhere. The whole week seemed like one long day,” Slater said.

Lasting Impact 
Heather Hanson — a Communications Technician I for the Tampa Police Department — has worked there since 2009. She has also served as a trainer at the dispatch academy. In 2010 when two Tampa police officers were killed in the line of duty, she worked at the command post, obtaining tips from callers. 

“It made me feel good to do something connected to it — to feel we were helping. It was crucial, I think,” Hanson said. She explained it was the first time that she had a genuine understanding of the thin blue line. 

“It just blew my mind. Something changed in me,” Hanson said. The lasting impact on her was so profound that she is now making a career transition. She has converted from a full-time dispatcher to part-time to allow her the opportunity to go through the police academy to become a Tampa police officer.  

Many dispatchers associate with colleagues in the field during their off time and, consequently develop solid friendships with police officers. The camaraderie solidifies both the professional as well as the personal relationships they share. Dispatchers recognize their crucial role in serving as the lifeline for officer safety specifically, as well as public safety generally. In their joint endeavors, dispatchers and law enforcement officers serve as unsung heroes in the public safety arena.

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