911 dispatcher strives to be helpful and save lives

  • Sun Jan 29th, 2012 7:12pm
  • News

By Katie Murdoch For The Herald

Dispatcher Tara Larkins hadn’t been married for very long when she answered an emergency call involving a man who wasn’t breathing. The woman on the other end of the line repeatedly told Larkins she wasn’t ready to lose her husband of 50 years.

Larkins guided the woman through the steps of CPR while dispatching emergency responders.

She never found out if the man survived.

The call rattled her.

“That call always stuck with me,” she said last week.

Larkins, of Edmonds, is an emergency dispatcher at the South Snohomish County Communications Agency, better known as SNOCOM, in Mountlake Terrace.

The phone calls can be tough to shake off. And it’s rare to have closure.

There’s a balance dispatchers achieve between caring about the strangers on the phone who need help and staying detached and professional.

“At first that was hard, but you learn to pick up and keep going,” Larkins said.

It helps having a strong support system of coworkers who understand how Larkins, 30, feels. The common language dispatchers use at work — and down time used to decompress — also help them stay poised.

“There’s great teamwork and everyone helps each other out,” she said.

She joined SNOCOM two years ago. It was a natural fit as Larkins enjoys helping others.

“It’s an exciting job; it’s never the same every day,” she said.

SNOCOM is a consolidated emergency public safety dispatch agency created more than 40 years ago by its founding partners: the cities of Brier, Edmonds, Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace and Woodway along with Snohomish County Fire Protection District 1 and the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.

Larkins’ work includes on-the-job training and monthly in-service training. Last fall, Larkins attended training to improve the survival rate of patients who have gone into cardiac arrest. Larkins said she’s constantly learning something new and refreshing already-learned skills.

She works six days on and three days off while rotating through three positions for which she’s been cross-trained and certified: fire, police and call-taking dispatch. Larkins also trains new dispatchers.

When emotionally charged calls come in, Larkins said, her instincts take over and her training kicks in, including techniques to help callers calm down and to provide information for responders.

One misconception about dispatchers is they’re rude and don’t care, Larkins said.

“That’s not true; we care,” she said.

Part of the job requires asking a series of questions to get information to aid responders, as the caller is the dispatcher’s eyes and ears. This can come off as insensitive to callers.

“No. 1 is we’re customer-service oriented,” she said. “We’re more than just ‘get information and get off the phone’.”

It helps to have a sense of humor and a good attitude and to leave what happened at work at the dispatch center.

“You have to know you did the best job you could,” she said.

And it helps to know when to let go.

“I can’t control what other people do, but I can control how I react,” she said.