Carrie Weissert’s desk looks like the headquarters of a covert hacking operation. Six computer monitors are
arranged in a semicircle before her, each with a different array of buttons, icons and rows of text that clearly require skill to decipher.
In her third month of training, Weissert is still acclimating to her role as a communications technician, a.k.a. dispatcher, for the La Grande Police Department — and if the monitors are any indication, the learning curve is steep.
“I’ve learned (the job) is far more encompassing than I’d envisioned,” Weissert said, though that has yet to deter her.
A transplant from the Portland suburb of Damascus, Weissert moved to La Grande earlier this year, following her husband and daughter, who already lived in the area. A Portland area native, Weissert spent 22 years working for the Gresham School District, the last 12 of those years in the transportation department as a school bus dispatcher. In search of a job in La Grande, when she discovered the LGPD opening, she decided to take a chance.
“I found it intriguing, so I applied,” she said.
While she had experience in dispatch, she notes police dispatch and transportation dispatch differ dramatically, and underwent a lengthy hiring process — a typing test, two-hour state-mandated written test and simulator/stress test, all before being interviewed. The simulator test, specifically, is designed to evaluate an individual’s ability to problem solve, multitask, follow instructions and, perhaps most important, determine how well one handles and recovers from high-level stress situations.
Even as a newbie, Weissert is already putting those abilities to the test.
“I’ve had a couple high stress calls (and) a lot of high stress periods of time, where everything is coming at you (simultaneously) and you have to prioritize and give and look up information,” Weissert said of the job. “It’s been fascinating. Sometimes I thrive on the stress (and) enjoy that period of time.”
Weissert is nearly halfway through the first six months of her initial training under the tutelage of trainer Dyan Snook. She’ll have an additional six months of training following this stint — a year of training total — before she can dispatch on her own.
“They offer the support and training you need to be successful,” Weissert said of LGPD. “They’re not going to throw you in there and expect you to manage it. They take the time to teach you. It’s a team, (and) everybody is helping each other.”
In August, Weissert graduated from the Oregon Public Safety Academy in Salem, a mandatory training all 911 dispatchers must complete. The academy is operated by the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, which offers training that adheres to professional standards and certification for first responders. The two-week course includes emergency and non- emergency training such as call handling techniques, stress management and an overview of fire-rescue and law enforcement operations.
Back in the LGPD offices, however, Weissert has a whole other set of information to familiarize herself with and set to memory — 10 codes, radio traffic communication and phone system operations, all while navigating a sea of buttons and functions on the monitors and looking up information in the Law Enforcement Data System. Weissert said she’s even made flashcards to review some of the information.
“We answer 911 calls, but we do a lot of non- emergency calls too,” she said. “I’m starting to learn how to answer questions when people call in for information (and) all the other pieces that come together to form the job I’ve taken on. It’s very involved and I (still) have a lot to learn.”
Weissert currently works swing shift but will soon transition into a night owl, working 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. on graveyard shift. The Union County 911 dispatch center operates 24/7, providing police, fire, EMS, search and rescue and quick response team dispatch and communications services for a total of 22 agencies across the county. In 2017, Union County Dispatch logged and dispatched 32,480 calls: 5,385 of those calls were “imminent threat to life or property” or “needs immediate response” incidents, while 11,168 calls were routine calls for service (theft, burglary, suspicious persons, etc.).
“When you answer the phone, you never know what’s going to be on the other end of the line. It’s different every time you answer,” Weissert said. “That’s a part (of the job) I enjoy, not knowing who it’s going to be, what they’re going to need and how I can help them.”
A good dispatcher has the right combination of personality type and acquired skills — requiring quick thinking and problem solving, the ability to manage emotions and maintain an even temperament under immense pressure and stress, plus a detail-oriented mindset, penchant for asking the right questions and affinity for the unusual.
“If my voice is excited, it’s going to affect the person on the other end. I (need to) be their calm in the middle of the storm, keep them focused and give them as much information as I can,” Weissert said.
If it’s a law officer, she added, she must calmly impart the necessary information, “so they can be ready when they get to the scene (and) have a more successful interaction. It saves them time so they can be (better) prepared.”
When dispatch receives a call, the two dispatchers on duty are alerted by one of two different tones that indicate whether the call is 911 or non-emergency. The call will also appear on both dispatchers’ computer screens, and while one is gathering information from the caller and entering data into the computer, the other can see that same information and proceed with notifying the appropriate agency.
“The single-most important piece of information is location. If I get disconnected or something happens, if I have that location, I can send someone to help,” Weissert said. “A lot of times (callers) want us to stay on the line, so (we) reassure them help is coming (or) how long it might be (until someone arrives).”
Weissert also appreciates the comradery and communal atmosphere among everyone at LGPD, and says officers have provided her constructive criticism and advice along the way — some even hang out in dispatch during down time.
“It’s a great group of people to work with here, a fantastic team,” she said. “They all have each other’s backs. We put out the call to one person, and other people say they’ll come and help. It’s been really great to hear officers support each other, and we’re here to support all of them as well. Everybody does a little piece of the puzzle to make it all come together.”
With just a few months of training under her proverbial duty belt, Weissert is eager to settle in to her position and anticipates a long career with LGPD.
“I’m looking forward to a day when I feel just a little more comfortable,” she said. “I’m still second-guessing myself and a little hesitant sometimes. It’ll be great to have more of a comfort level and confidence in myself, (to know) I can handle whatever is on the other line. It’s going to be fun to master all the skills I need in order to perform at the level I need to.”