If you were set designing a control centre for a movie, the room London Police Service dispatchers use would be it.
There’s natural light, but not a lot of it. Large computer monitors dot the room, people talking into headsets sitting in front of them. A digital clock near the ceiling counts the day down, one second at a time. In cop talk, it is 15:35:47 and everyone is busy trying to help someone on the other end of the line.
The communications centre fields an average of 700-800 calls a day, every day. About half of them are 911 calls, including the frustrating pocket dials that still arrive by the thousands every year. In fact, the dispatch centre received 6,601 of them in 2015 alone.
That’s a bundle for a team that often has as few as four people on shift. Overall, there were 173,722 emergency 911 calls in 2015, an eight percent increase over the year before.
It’s a difficult job made more so by the enormous stress that accompanies the hectic pace.
“One thing that’s difficult for them is there’s almost never any closure,” said London Police Sgt. Derek Spence, the man in charge of the dispatch centre. A 29-year veteran, Spence has worked in numerous areas of policing, including robbery and the K-9 unit. “They might get a call from a lady who’s terrified because her infant son isn’t breathing,” he said. “They’ll give her all the help they can, but when EMS and police arrive it’s time to get on to another call. There’s always another call.”
His team is divided into call takers, who answer the phone and get a quick fix on the situation and all other pertinent information, including the address, and dispatchers, who deal almost exclusively with the officers on the ground.
Spence said if a call comes in regarding a man with a knife inside a house, the call taker, dispatcher and responding officers have to work as one. If the suspect leaves the house, the call taker has to tell the dispatcher, who then must inform the officer as quickly as possible. That can take precious seconds and put officers in peril if they’re not told quickly enough.
And it all has to be done in a clear and calm voice. Excitable types need not apply.
Michelle Wenger has spent about 15 years in the dispatch centre. Now a lead trainer for new hires, she said it’s crucial, but difficult, to leave it at the office after a shift ends. Married to a cop, they spend 10 minutes talking about their day once they get home before moving on to other things.
It’s rarely easy, however.
“It’s really difficult to take a suicide call — a death by suicide — right around Christmas,” she said. “Sometimes, there’s some anger or resentment that someone has done this to their family.”
One such call hit too close to home.
“I did take a call for the suicide of a family member that I didn’t realize was a family member until the next day. He had jumped in front of a train. The officers are giving detailed descriptions of things they’re finding and seeing and we, as dispatchers, are documenting it all into the call.”
Wenger didn’t know until the next day that she had been documenting the death of a family member.
“It doesn’t take much for that wall to be broken down,” Spence said. “You can build that wall with bricks, but it can take just a little pebble to knock the whole thing down. You’re dealing with people in crisis every day. They’re not calling because they’re having a good day.”
It’s all worth it, though, when they’re able to calm a suicidal people down until first responders arrive. Wenger defers all the credit to officers on the scene, but the truth is she and her colleagues have saved countless lives from that dimly lit room, 12 hours at a time.