Behind the scenes at the 9-1-1 Call Center

Take a look at exclusive photos of this Bureau in action, and learn what it takes to dispatch emergency services here …

BOEC Telecommunicator, Kelly Martinez dispatches a Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office call.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton

Be it a holiday, weekend, overnight, or midday, some of the 130 employees at the City of Portland Bureau of Emergency Communications (BOEC) are on duty, often serving people who are having “the worst day of their life”.

For years, East Portland News has covered the BOEC “Telecommunicator of the Year Awards”, highlighting the bureau’s top staff members. CLICK HERE to read about this year’s presentations.

These staff members go to work in a purpose-built, high-security facility located in outer East Portland since 1994 – a far cry better than the previous two decades they spent in a concrete-reinforced bunker, buried 30 feet underground.

Operators in this pod are dispatching medical and fire emergency calls.

To get a feel for their work, inner Southeast Portland resident, and BOEC Telecommunicator, Kelly Martinez let East Portland News sit beside her during a two-hour rotation at the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office dispatch desk.

“Before I came here, I did transcription and word processing for an educational laboratory,” Martinez confided. “I wanted a challenge in my work life, and I found it here; I’ve been with BOEC for 23 years now.”

The desk at which she works features four large computer monitors, a computer keyboard, and a call recording and playback device. She listens for radio calls coming in on her headset, and taps a foot pedal to speak with deputies.

The interview paused as Martinez took a radio call, quickly pressed a series of keys, typed the comments in the computerized form, and read it back, confirming her receipt of the transmission.

“This is my favorite dispatch position,” Martinez said. “But, we rotate ‘desks’ every two hours. Some times we’re answering calls coming in from the 9-1-1 telephone system. And, we rotate dispatching police, fire, and medical calls – or working on the Service Desk, or answering non-emergency calls.”

As new information flashed on one of her monitors, she paused to dispatch a deputy to a mid-County address.

“In a way I miss the swing shift hours,” Martinez resumed. “During call taking, the day shift doesn’t have as much activity. Going into the afternoon and evening, there are more ‘interesting’ calls coming in.”

People calling into the 9-1-1 Center speak with “call takers” at these stations.

She said she has not yet assisted the giving birth to a baby over the phone, but she’s come close to doing so on several occasions.

Two critical skills necessary for working as a BOEC telecommunicator, Martinez remarked, is being able to multitask, and being a fast and accurate typist. “You have to be able to talk while you type numbers and letters. And, it’s really important to know the geography. You have to know where officers are, and know where to direct them to go.”

Asked if there were a particular temperament or personality-type best suited to the job, Martinez though for a moment and replied, “We are all so different here.

“You need to be calm under stressful situations,” she added. “And, it’s also necessary to work well with the public. As a call taker, we are here to provide excellent customer service.”

Finally, a learned skill is “not to get wrapped up emotionally in the callers’ predicaments,” Martinez said.

Supervising the 9-1-1 call takers is BOEC Communications Operations Supervisor Kris DeVore.

Overseeing the bank of telecommunicators taking 9-1-1 calls from the public, during our visit, was BOEC Communications Operations Supervisor Kris DeVore.

“One thing that people wonder about is why we ask them questions when they call in,” DeVore said.

“Our staff has a passion for what they do; they want to get emergency responders to the right place, at the right time,” DeVore added. “The questions we ask of callers help us deliver emergency services as quickly and as accurately as possible.”

BOEC provides call-taking and dispatch services to the Portland Police Bureau, Portland Fire & Rescue, Gresham Police & Fire Departments, Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, Troutdale Police, Fairview Police, Corbett and Sauvie Island Volunteer Fire Departments, and Multnomah County Emergency Medical Services. It receives about 940,000 calls a year.

Non-emergency calls are also received and logged in at the BOEC 9-1-1 Center.

“The most important thing to know about BOEC is that we’re staffed with people who truly care about what they’re doing – that is, getting help fast to people who need help,” DeVore said.

© 2015 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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