Christina Rawls was born on 9/11. One of the darkest days happened in this country on 9/11. And Rawls works every day at the city’s 911 center.
Strange coincidences like this make one wonder. But when face to face with Rawls, it is clear this is not a coincidence. It’s something that’s meant to be. For 12 years, Rawls has worked as a 911 dispatcher. She is also a supervisor and training coordinator, meaning she works to train all new dispatchers on the ins and outs of the hectic and sometimes stressful job. For her, it’s a life calling.
“I love my job,” Rawls says. “You have to have a passion for this type of job.”
When there is an emergency, and someone calls 911, the dispatcher who answers never knows what he or she is about to hear. It’s a call people make when they are in some of life’s worst predicaments. People yell. They cry. They plea for help.
Time is of the essence. And the dispatchers must quickly process what they hear, talk the caller through what needs to be done at that moment and then send the appropriate responders. It all happens within minutes.
Many times, it is a life-and-death situation and the dispatcher is faced with lots of quick decisions and possibly having to give the caller step-by-step directions on what to do until help arrives.
“We have to be the calm in the storm. We have to be able to handle many situations at one time,” says Rawls, 37. “It’s a very high stress job.”
The city’s 911 center is in the basement of Newport News City Hall. Dispatchers work around the clock, no matter what. Even through hurricanes and snowstorms. The 911 center is critical to the safety of the citizens of Newport News and must always be operational, Rawls says.
Each month, between 25,000 and 30,000 calls come into the city’s 911 center. In a 24-hour period, dispatchers usually handle approximately 1,000 calls. Some are emergencies; others are not. There are also the occasional hang-ups. The dispatchers handle calls for the fire department, police department, EMS, animal control, park rangers, the airport and sheriff’s department. Of the calls coming in, 80 percent are those requiring police help. The center has a staff of about 50. The day and night shifts have a minimum of seven dispatchers working and the midnight shift has a minimum of six.
The center is completely digital and dispatchers communicate with callers via headsets.
When a call comes in, the first question is usually to ask the caller’s location. Cell phones have made it increasingly hard to pinpoint the location from where the call is being made. So, dispatchers have learned to ask many questions to reveal where a caller may be. They follow that with a litany of questions, also known as the five W’s: who, what, where, when and why. From there, they discern the priority level of the situation, what action needs to be taken and what type of help should be sent.
“This job will either tear you down or make you a stronger person. It has made me stronger,” Rawls says. “You have to have empathy and compassion in the job.”
There is also a strong emphasis on ensuring the safety of the first responders.
“We always want to make sure everyone goes home safely,” Rawls says.
To be a dispatcher requires months of training. The statistics show that one out of every 200 recruits will become a lifelong dispatcher, Rawls says. About 20 percent will stay on the job more than five years.
Dispatchers deal with a variety of emotions. Some get burned out and others experience PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). Once they are finished dealing with a call, the dispatchers often do not know what the end result of the situation was. “We don’t get closure like police officers do,” Rawls says. “There are a lot of ‘what ifs.’”
Because of the nature of the job, dispatchers tend to be close and help each other through the tough situations. “It’s a family,” Rawls says. “I love our people. I have seen how far they have come. We see the growth of each person and learn from those who have been here a long time and the legacy they have imparted. They are a wealth of knowledge and we look up to each and every one of them.”
On any given day, a dispatcher may help a caller deliver a baby or perform CPR on a victim who is on the brink of death. It’s a fast-paced job that can result in a lot of good.
“It sticks with you. Most of us do this because we want to be able to help the community,” Rawls says. “At the end of the day, when I ask myself, ‘did I help someone?’ and the answer is ‘yes,’ that makes it really worth it.”
TO THE POINT:
Christina Rawls, 911 dispatcher and training coordinator