By Kevin McClintock
Globe Staff Writer
JOPLIN, Mo. —
It's called "the dungeon." But the dark, windowless room at the Joplin police station holds no prisoners. The darkness is punctuated by the blue-white hue of computer monitors -- three or four at each desk.
The affectionately named room is the home of 17 emergency dispatchers who strive to calm the chaos of daily disasters; who perform one of the more demanding jobs in the area.
Dispatchers based at the Joplin Emergency Communication Center, said Emergency Communications Manager Sunny Goodwin, serve as gateways to the other public safety personnel in Joplin: police officers, firefighters and EMS paramedics. They are the unseen but vital link in keeping police officers -- and the public -- safe at all times of the day and night.
"They are the ones who connect the dots," Goodwin said. "They are the ones taking that first call."
The dispatchers comprise a unique group of individuals who work odd hours, shoulder huge amounts of stress, can multitask and can simultaneously answer several phone calls -- all this while providing lifesaving medical care to the public until first responders can arrive.
"It's a very important job," Goodwin said. "I wouldn't actually call it a job. It's a career, and a very important one."
How important? A YouTube audio clip (with 70,000-plus views) covering the initial 35 minutes of the 2011 Joplin tornado features the voice of calm, collected Sherry Nauta as she updates and directs scattered Joplin fire and police units to where they were needed most.
The clip probably best sums up the importance of a dispatcher. It also show the elite multitasking skills a dispatcher must perform to be able to do the job correctly.
"You can go from high stress to not having anything happening for 45 minutes, and then it's 'boom' again," Goodwin said. "You just never know. It's just so unpredictable. We enjoy helping people, and we enjoy interacting with the public, but it's not a job for everyone."
Multitasking a must to work here
The center, located at the Donald C. Clark Public Safety building, at 303 E. Third Street, annually fields between 140,000 and 190,000 phone calls. Those calls include a varied mixture of non-emergency, police, 911 and administrative calls.
Dispatcher Julie Gooch fielded 16,000 calls in 2012, the highest total among the center's dispatchers. She has worked at the cockpit-like console for 10 years.
She stumbled into the dispatching job after moving to Missouri from California.
"I thought, 'What better time to try something new,'" Gooch said. "I was overwhelmed at first. I'd go home at nights and see codes and alphabets running on (the bedroom) walls."
The No. 1 requirement of dispatching is being able to multitask, Gooch said. At any given moment, dispatchers can silently handle up to six or seven different tasks simultaneously.
"It is difficult, but you just have to take it one (task) at a time," Gooch said. "And then you do your best to keep up and update units (in the field). There are times where I can get four medical calls back-to-back-to-back-to-back, and then the phones will go silent. But those of us who get into the field, that like it, that's what we love. You love that you don't know what's ever going to happen.
"I can be on the phone with somebody screaming at me, but I can still hear my officer asking for a '28,' and then at the same time, I'm still able to catch the conversation going on in the background. We call it 'dispatch ear.'"
It's a useful skill to have, even at home, Gooch said with a grin.
"I'll be talking on the phone, my husband will be talking to me, (but) I can still hear the kids in the other room say something," she said.
Gooch's husband is a Joplin police officer, with the department's Special Enforcement Bureau. Luckily, she's never had to take a bad call involving her husband, and she hopes she never will.
"I worry about it. Whenever we're at work, all of our officers are kind of the same. If any officer is in trouble, then we're all worried about (him or her)," she said. "But if my husband is in a situation that needs help, the other officers are good about texting me and saying, 'Hey, he's OK.'"
Any phone call she takes can be a life-and-death situation for the person on the other line. The worst type of calls for her -- or any dispatcher -- are those involving children.
"You just have to remove yourself from that during the call and just focus on that call," she said. "But nobody wants the 'child' call. When you take one, you do what you've been trained to do. And after you hang up the phone, that's when you deal with the emotions. Every child call affects us."
One of her worst days occurred about five years ago. Within an hour, she took a call about a fire, in which the caller said he was trapped. Moments later, she got a call where a baby had died. She said she took the calls and got through them.
"Then I went and had a meltdown in the bathroom," she said.
Another call stands out. She explained to a hysterical woman how to perform the Heimlich maneuver on her 8-year-old child, who had choked and wasn't breathing. When the EMS personnel showed up on location, Gooch discovered via one of the paramedics that it wasn't an 8-year-old child, but rather an 8-year-old dog. Obviously, Gooch was relieved.
"You have to have humor," Goodwin said. "You would be a basket case with some of the calls we get."
Questions linger after calls
Goodwin, a 10-year veteran dispatcher, said the most difficult task concerning dispatchers is living inside a black hole and never knowing how a specific situation from a specific phone call turns out. A dispatcher will field the initial call and will calmly talk the panicked person through a horrific situation, and then abruptly disconnect when a Joplin police officer, paramedic or firefighter finally arrives on the scene.
Did the child live? Did the heart-attack victim make it? Did the teen who nearly drowned in the backyard swimming pool survive?
"The officers and firemen get to see the end results," Goodwin said. "They know if someone passed away or if they're going to be OK. We don't see that part here in the center."
Luckily, the police officers, firefighters and paramedics are good at sending messages about when people in danger are OK.
"That helps us a lot," Goodwin said. "And that's how we're able to deal with the stress."
Gooch said her husband goes a step further.
"We really don't talk about work a lot at home," Gooch said. "But he'll say, 'You did a great job on that call today.'"
Gooch knows she's saved countless lives during the 16,000 calls she fielded last year and the countless more thousands she's fielded over the past 10 years. But she doesn't keep a scorecard. She doesn't mark down the successful ones and weigh them against the unsuccessful ones. She just does her job.
"I love my job," Gooch said. "And it feels good to help people. That's what we do."
Inside 'the dungeon'