4-8-4 was usually the car I worked. Your car number identified you and the district you worked. “4-8-4, are you ok?” was the question a 9-1-1 dispatcher would ask if they hadn’t heard from me on a traffic stop. It begins when you call a dispatcher to start your traffic stop.
Dispatcher: “4-8-4 go.”
4-8-4: “122 and Stark, with Oregon Adam Boy Lincoln 1-2-3.” (Oregon license plate ABL 123.)
The dispatcher enters the info on one of the multiple computer screens at their desk. It starts a timer on the screen. The timer alerts the dispatcher to call and ask if you’re okay after a few minutes have passed without hearing from you. That dispatcher is your lifeline, a guardian angel. Like a guardian angel, unseen, looking out for you, but heard. When first responders are mentioned sometimes we forget to remember that the 9-1-1 dispatcher is the first responder when they take a call from someone who needs help.
There was a recent article in the Oregonian about 9-1-1 dispatchers in Umatilla County. Umatilla County encompasses 3,231 square miles.
Caitlin Slette remembers one of her first calls as an emergency dispatcher.
“On my second or third day working on my own, I got a call from someone way out in the county,” she said. “(He) said there was someone at his door who thought his ear had gotten shot off. He kept saying, ‘If he comes in, I’m going to shoot him.'”
Slette was able to keep the caller on the phone, and get emergency services to the scene before he acted on his words.
This baptism-by-fire is not abnormal for dispatchers — the first point of contact when someone calls 911. Inside the Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office in Pendleton, the team of 18 dispatchers field calls from 25 different law enforcement and emergency agencies, directing police officers, fire and ambulance services to the places where callers need help. But new dispatchers like Slette, who has worked in the job for nearly a year, go through months of training before they can field emergency calls. They learn the basics — finding out a person’s location, the reason for the call, and if there are any weapons — and the language of law enforcement. Slette said she trained for about three months before being able to take emergency calls on her own.
Each dispatcher sits at a desk with seven screens: two connected to the phone lines, three where they enter and access information from various databases, and two that access the radio system. There are usually five or six working at a time, with each person managing a different agency. One person will take care of all emergency and fire agencies, and one dispatcher will be assigned to each police agency. As they receive information about a call, they enter it into the system, where the other dispatchers can view it.
Communications Sergeant Karen Primmer said one of the toughest parts of the job is the lack of closure — once law enforcement takes over, dispatchers are no longer a part of the call, and don’t know whether something was resolved.
“We sometimes get left out of that conclusion piece,” she said. “We want to hear the rest of the story.”
One night I was working with a friend from college. He was a traffic officer, a 300 car. He said we should pay a visit to radio. Radio was the Bureau of Emergency Communications. BOEC at that time was located inside a cold-war bunker that had been hollowed out of Kelly Butte, an extinct volcanic plug located within the city limits of Portland.
He introduced me by name to one the dispatchers and as soon as I said, “It’s nice to meet you,” she said “Oh, you’re 4-8-4. Hey, everyone, meet 4-8-4.” Greetings were exchanged, but I knew I was more than a number to everyone I met that night. You are too when you call 9-1-1.