Southern Oregon Regional Communications center director Margie Puckett, center, talks with dispatchers at the center's offices on the top floor of the Jackson County courthouse. Jamie Lusch Photo - Jamie Lusch

H-E-L-P Wanted

Minutes can feel like hours when dialing those three little numbers: 9-1-1. But after the drama passes, do you ever take a moment to wonder who answers our emergency calls?

Depending on where you're calling from, dispatchers send help from one of three centers in Jackson County. Medford, Ashland and Medford airport personnel are dispatched through Rogue Valley Consolidated Communications based in Medford. Oregon State Police officers are dispatched from a command center in Central Point. The rest of the valley's emergency responders rely upon Southern Oregon Regional Communications in Medford.

Located on the top floor of the Jackson County Courthouse, SORC dispatchers send out information to police, fire and other first responders from 27 different agencies to Jackson County residents who do not live within Medford or Ashland city limits, says SORC Director Margie Puckett.

Puckett has been with SORC for 17 years. The first 10 were spent as a dispatcher, and she makes sure those skills remain up to snuff, she said. Because when the river rises or fires flame, Puckett still picks up a headset.

"I try to do enough to keep up my skill. When we get hit by flooding or fires, I want to be able to help," she said.

SORC handles about 250,000 calls a year.

Taking the hypothetical example of a woman calling 9-1-1 and crying, "Help! There's a man at my door with a gun!" Puckett says the SORC call-taker would try to keep the woman on the phone to ask her a series of questions.

The call-taker then relays that information to a law dispatcher who sends out help.

To the caller getting queried, it may seem like too much talk and not enough action, but rest assured an officer is likely already on the way, Puckett said.

"One commonly held misconception is that we wait to have all our questions asked and answered before sending in help," Puckett said. "We send (first responders) immediately."

The information relayed by the operators gives police officers a better handle on the nature of the call, what to expect, and if they need backup, she said.

The job can be stressful. Calming down a hysterical parent so you can talk them through CPR on an unconscious infant over the phone requires nerves of steel.

And the dispatchers often don't get to know what happens after the caller's off the line, Puckett said.

"It can be tough. I tell people it's like only getting to read half of a book," she said.

Jeff Palmer has been with SORC for about nine years. The former television and radio host said his toughest calls range "from parents finding their kids dead to older people finding their spouses dead."

But not all 9-1-1 calls are desperate. And some that start in desperation end happily. Puckett and Palmer recall a man who was suicidal and called Palmer for help. Palmer spent a considerable amount of time talking the man out of ending his life. At the end of the call, the despondent man had become Palmer's biggest fan.

"I love you, man," the trucker said.

Palmer responded with what is known in the business as "positive call termination."

"I said, 'I love you too,'" Palmer said.

Palmer has never heard the end of his cuddly sign-off, Puckett said.

"We teased him about it a lot. We still do," she said.

Sometimes callers feign emergencies out of loneliness — or laziness, Puckett said.

"We had a guy who used to call claiming he had an emergency. When we'd get there, he'd say things like, 'Can you go get me a milkshake?'" said Puckett. "Of course that's a huge waste of our resources. We had to charge him to get him to stop."

Cell phones also can be a source of wasted resources. A federal law requires cell phone companies to make sure phones maintain the ability to call 9-1-1, even when service has been shut off.

"As long as the batteries are working, the phone should be able to dial 9-1-1," said Puckett.

Parents who give their deactivated phones to their children to use as toys need to remove the phone's batteries or lock the keypad, she said.

Adults who abuse their 9-1-1 feature face penalties, Puckett said.

"Sometimes they call us and ask us to patch them through to other numbers," she said.

Don't think they can't find you just because you're on a cell phone, either. Most people know that dialing from a home phone will pop the address of your residence onto SORC's screens. But your cell will also give a general location, Puckett said.

"We can tell where you're calling from, even cell phones," said Puckett. "But home phones give an exact address. Cell phones give a range."

The ability to multi-task is vital for a dispatcher, said Puckett. Applicants must pass drug screening, physical tests and criminal background checks. A computer program also tests their ability to multi-task. If they pass all of the above, applicants then face about six months of in-house training as well as certification programs and a two-week course in telecommunications.

Dispatch centers are staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

"Training takes about seven months, by the time all is said and done," said Puckett. "It's a difficult job to learn. Once you do learn, the different shifts can be hard because they can interfere with social or family life. But we pay pretty well and we have pretty good benefits."

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