MANCHESTER, NH – It is the second week of Manchester’s Citizens Police Academy, and the topic is communications.
After more than an hour of explaining the vital role her dispatch team plays in keeping police officers and citizens connected, Manchester Police Communication’s Manager Rachel Page brings the point home when she replays the March 21, 2012 recording of communication between Manchester Police Officer Dan Doherty and dispatchers.
Page listens intently, although she knows the dialogue by heart. She stops the recording, then fast-forwards, replaying the sound of gunshots and the excruciating silence that followed, as fellow officers and dispatchers repeatedly ask Doherty to respond after they know he’s likely been shot.
“If that doesn’t tell you the story of what our officers do every day, I don’t know what will,” Page says. “It gives me the chills every time I listen to it.”
Doherty was on a routine call, assisting other officers who observed suspicious behavior on the city’s West Side when the saw Myles Webster get out of a car. He had something tucked in this waistband underneath his shirt that was distracting him. Doherty spotted Webster on Rimmon Street, and Webster saw Doherty, too.
Then Webster fired 14 rounds, hitting Doherty five times.
Page said it was Doherty’s ability to radio in his location and the whereabouts of Webster that saved his life and led to Webster’s capture, within just minutes of the shooting.
While Doherty’s shooting is an extreme example, Page and her dispatch team know that it is an everyday possibility, which is why they are always prepared every worst case scenario.
Most of the time, however, they field calls from residents that are routine and require them to be everything from marriage and family counselors, and kids who don’t want to get out of bed for school, to the complaint department for all things Manchester.
“Dispatcher burn out” and “compassion fatigue” are actual occupational hazards, says Page. Her department consists of 28 team members — 5 dispatch supervisors, 16 dispatchers/call takers, five police services specialists and two computer support specialists, all overseen by Page, the manager. There are currently two vacancies on the team, but she was interviewing last week to fill both spots.
The Communications department is divided into three areas: Emergency Services Dispatch, Police Services Specialists and Information Support Specialists.
“It’s not a job for everyone. Some people don’t make it past their first two weeks. Some people know after the first day that it’s not for them. It takes a certain kind of person to handle it,” says Page, who started as a dispatcher 18 years ago, a job she had for three years before moving into crime analysis. She has been managing the department for the past 11 years.
“You need thick skin and a short memory. It’s a mentally and emotionally demanding job. We do get calls that involve life or death situations. When I tell someone what to do next, it better be the right thing,” she says.
The communications department is responsible for all equipment used by officers “with an on/off switch,” from phones, computers, and computers in squad cars, to projectors and the radio system. Other duties include taking police reports from residents who walk into the lobby, and monitoring security cameras, including those inside booking rooms. Although it’s a secondary part of the job, it’s still important to have another pair of eyes on the lobby, or when someone’s in a holding cell, Page says.
It’s been a particularly busy year so far for her dispatchers. Statistics show incoming calls for service for 2014 are so far are on track to outpace the previous three years, by a lot. In 2011 there were a total of 102,947 calls for service. In 2012 there were 102,384. In 2013 there were 109,063 calls for service, in addition to 305,516 incoming and outgoing phone calls.
“In 2014 we’ve already had 100,972 calls for service, an average of 360 calls per day,” said Page.
She did not have specific information on what is driving the spike in calls for service, but said likely an increase in drug activity is a contributing factor.
“Certainly drug activity creates more thefts and burglaries, but also, we have more officer initiated activity as they are patrolling higher-crime areas, or hot spots, places we are statistically seeing more burglaries, so we’re increasing police presence there,” Page says.