EL PASO — Whether it is a car accident, a fire or a heart attack, when emergencies happen, your first instinct is to dial 9-1-1.
Employees at the 911 Communication Center play a vital role in communication emergencies to the El Paso Police and Fire Departments.
They ask questions to make sure you get the help you need, but in order to offer that help, emergency call-takers and dispatchers must first go through a grueling hiring and training process.
“To become a communicator is an appointment by the state, so there are a lot of certifications that we have to uphold, not only for the state, but for the city as well,” said Frances Jimenez, a public safety shift supervisor at the 911 Communication Center in El Paso.
Before becoming a supervisor, she worked as a call-taker and dispatcher for fire and police. Now she trains new applicants to make sure they meet the minimum qualifications. Applicants must be able to pass a typing test, speak English and Spanish, must have a high school diploma/GED and two years of work experience, one of which must be in customer service. Applicants must also be able to pass an additional test.
“It's a tough test, but we need to have sharp people working here, and that's probably where we lose the most amount of people is during the test,” said Jimenez.
Hundreds apply for the job, but less than a handful will land the position.
"This job isn't for everybody. It takes a special type of personality to work here. You have to be resilient, you have to be intelligent and you have to be smart,” said Jimenez.
Jimenez said they strive to do their best, but no one is perfect and sometimes there is a mix-up in relaying the information.
“Even if you think you hear one thing and you're trying to relay that, there's always going to be miscommunication. If you're doing what you're trained to do, you're going to minimize mistakes,” said Jimenez
Jimenez said they have a quality assurance program to make sure those mistakes are addressed and avoided in the future.
600,000 people in El Paso dialed 911 in 2012 and someone at the 911 Communication Center responded to every single one of those calls. That is what their training prepares them to do. The hard part is dealing with the physical and emotional stress that comes with the job.
Toni Moore has worked at the 911 Communication Center for 23 years. She said not all calls are routine and some are definitely harder to deal with
"Anything to do with children,” said Moore, “In the summer when you get children, it seems like always there’s at least one or two children that end up in a swimming pool drowned. You get the babies that for whatever reason are not breathing."
"We're all mothers and fathers so that hits a little bit harder,” said Moore.
Jimenez said it is during those difficult calls that the training comes into play.
“Throughout their classroom training, they are exposed to different calls on purpose. In the hiring process they're exposed to calls that way they're aware of what they might listen to,” said Jimenez.
Jimenez shared the story of a call that made her realize the training she receives could be the difference between life and death.
“I did take a call from an elder female in her 70s. It was during the holidays, it was very cold outside, it had to have been in the 30s or 40s. She called her husband in for dinner and she couldn’t find him, he wasn’t coming in. She found him in the pool outside. She jumped in the pool to try to get him and she couldn’t get him out. She tried calling for her neighbors to help her, but her neighbors didn’t hear her so she had to leave him back in the pool. She went back inside to get her cordless phone and then jumped back in the water. By the time she called me she was in the pool with him, she had his head over on the side of the pool. I don’t know how she even had the physical strength to do what she was doing. I kept hearing this noise and I didn’t know what it was. I asked her, ‘Ma’am, what is that noise I’m hearing?’ And she said, ‘That’s me, I have pneumonia.’ Knowing that is her life partner, she was willing to do what she did, she had the strength and the courage to do what she did, it brought me back down to realizing that my job really is important and there really are other people that can use our help.”
Unfortunately, the man did not survive, but Jimenez said it was her training that helped her keep calm that winter day. She stayed on the line with the woman to help her do everything possible before paramedics arrived.
An increase in the number of 9-1-1 calls is expected once the weather starts warming up. The city will be looking to hire more call-takers and dispatchers. To check job postings online, go to http://home.elpasotexas.gov/human-resources .