KINGMAN - Last month, a 16-year-old teen found his mother dead. His call to 911 was an automatic reflex; he hadn't actually begun to process what was going on until he was on the phone with the 911 dispatcher, who suddenly had to take on the role of counselor.
"That's the hardest part of the job," said Jody Schanaman, dispatch supervisor for the Mohave County Sheriff's Office. "When you can't physically be there, you have to rely on that comforting tone in your voice instead of a hug."
Police officers get all the glory in the law enforcement, but behind all those men and women in uniform are a trained staff on the radio who serve as the liaison between police and the public.
"We kind of play monkey in the middle between the reporting party and the police officer," Schanaman said.
The information a dispatcher coaxes out of a caller can mean a great deal of difference to an officer who would otherwise go into an emergency situation blind.
"We try to keep them on the line even if it's just to listen to the background noise," Schanaman said.
When a person calls 911, that call is directed to dispatch centers at either the Sheriff's Office or the Kingman Police Department, depending on an identifier tagged on the line by the phone company that differentiates between calls from the city and the county. A call originating from a land line will automatically display where a person is calling from; calls from cell phones are a little more difficult to trace if a person can't give their location.
In August, dispatchers played detective when they received a call from a man experiencing a seizure who couldn't give his address. They ultimately tracked him to Davis Avenue based on clues they heard on the line and were able to transport him to the hospital where he recovered.
Calls from cell phones only give dispatchers the location of the cell tower. The Sheriff's Office is working on enhanced cell technology that won't give an exact location but will be able to provide the cell phone provider along with the longitude and latitude of where the call is coming from.
The technology has come a long way from when Schanaman started 22 years ago. Back then, she said, it could take 30 to 40 minutes to get the warrant status back on a suspect stopped by police. Now, that information is returned almost immediately.
The Kingman Police Department, which has 14 dispatchers operating our of its location on Andy Devine Avenue, is working on securing funding for a $4.5 million 911 call center that would use the most up-to-date technology.
"It's something we are in dire need of," said Sgt. Bob Fisk, although with budget crunches, it remains simply on the police department's wish list.
But while technology certainly streamlines information, dispatchers will still be responsible for keeping their cool in unbelievably tense situations. Dispatchers undergo more than a dozen weeks of training, with a yearly stress management seminar offered as well.
"Some people have had to quit because they internalize it," Schanaman said.
Schanaman was six months into her career when she took a call on the graveyard shift about a father holding his son hostage at gunpoint in a custody dispute. She had to keep the man on the line while negotiators tried to work with him.
Police were ultimately able to rescue the boy after the father fell asleep six hours into the incident.
It can also be stressful for dispatchers to hear their co-workers - police officers - in dangerous situations.
"The worst is when an officer doesn't respond," Schanaman said. "And you keep saying, 'Are you Code 4 (okay)?'"
About 18 months ago, a retired police officer from California called 911 and told the dispatcher he was going to kill himself. The dispatcher listened as the caller put the phone down and fired the fatal bullet.
"You can't save everyone's problems," Schanaman said.
But happily, there are those cases where a near tragic situation can be altered. A week after the officer from California killed himself, the Sheriff's Office received a call from a suicidal man out on Silver Springs Road.
The man had just torched his car and was ready to "end it all."
Schanaman said the dispatcher was able to reach out to the man by talking to him about his wife and children. A week later, the man came to the Sheriff's Office to meet the dispatcher he said saved his life.
"Sometimes it has a happy ending," she said.
33 minutes last Monday
911 dispatchers handle calls on everything from stray animals to domestic assaults. These calls represent just a portion of those received by the Mohave County Sheriff's Office on Sept. 28:
7:02 p.m.: Suspicious activity in the 18600 block of N. Rancho Drive in Dolan Springs.
7:03 p.m.: DUI on E. Courtney Place in Fort Mohave.
7:04 p.m.: Traffic stop on S. Highway 95 in Fort Mohave.
7:05 p.m.: Suspicious activity in the 2300 block of E. Lass Avenue in Kingman.
7:13 p.m.: Aircraft assist at Kingman Airport.
7:25 p.m.: Suspicious activity on N. Stockton Hill Road.
7:35 p.m.: Trespassing in the 3600 block of E. Canary Lane in Kingman.