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Week recognizes the public safety employees behind 911 calls
It's one of the most important jobs in public safety, but for the most part you never see the people who do it.
They are also the first ones you call in an emergency, and this week they are getting the recognition they deserve. The week of April 13-19, 2009 is National Public Safety Telecommunications Week.
This week, celebrated annually, honors the thousands of men and women who respond to emergency calls, dispatch emergency professionals and equipment, and render life-saving assistance to people in their communities as 911 dispatchers.
"We like to call ourselves the first first-responders," said LuSandra Harris, city of Yuma Public Safety Communication Center manager. "Dispatchers play a vital tole in providing public safety services to their community and to those who need it."
Mike Erfert, spokesman for the Yuma Fire Department, called dispatchers the heroes behind the scenes.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the Yuma Public Safety Communications Division hosted two full days of training and a celebratory luncheon for Yuma Area Public Safety Telecommunications Professionals.
It was held at the Yuma Police Department Community Rooms. More then 100 dispatchers from all the various agencies throughout the community attended.
This is the third year the Yuma Public Safety Communications Division has hosted the training, which focuses on a different aspect of their jobs each year. The focus of the training this year, according to Harris, was crisis communication.
"That would encompass a dispatcher's role in suicidal calls, stand-offs, violent crimes and extreme injuries," Harris said.
Moments of panic and pressure are just another day on the job for dispatcher Gemi Armijo, who helped save a man's life during a 22-minute call made to 911 last July.
That particular day, Armijo said, she was training a new dispatcher when a man called, saying he had fallen into a canal and couldn't get back out.
"He was very upset and said he thought he was going to drown because he couldn't swim," Armijo said. "But he knew he needed help and kept answering my questions."
Armijo said she took over the call and started asking the man questions trying to find out where he was, eventually figuring out he was in the All American Canal.
"The hardest part of helping someone is finding out where they are," Armijo said. "I don't know for sure but I think he was hanging on to something and called us for help on his cell phone."
Since the canal is actually in California, Armijo transferred the call to the Imperial County dispatchers and gave them them all the information she had. She stayed on the line talking to the man, trying to keep him calm.
"His name was Melvin," Armijo said. "Because we didn't know exactly where he was, somewhere inside me I was worried we weren't going to get to him in time and I was going to be the last person he would talk to. So when the call was over, I was so relieved."
In what made for a happy ending, the U.S. Border Patrol had several agents in the vicinity that day and were able to find the man based on the information provided by Armijo and the Imperial County dispatchers.
Armijo said the best advice she can give someone is if they ever have to call 911 is to tell the dispatcher their emergency in the first five words.
She said people need to try to help dispatcher help them by answering all their questions, no matter how unimportant they may be.
"And don't forget because I'm still asking you questions, it doesn't mean help isn't already on the way."
James Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com or 539-6854.