While National Public Safety Telecommunications Week comes to a close, local dispatchers – one who wishes they came to the career sooner, and another who calls dispatch “the best job anyone will ever have” – speak about their time on the other side of the yellow line.
HOW IT STARTED
Julia Harrison, TAC Officer with Paris Police Department, has worked as a dispatcher for PD for nearly 25 years and calls it “the best job ever.” From an early age, Courtni McEntyre has grown up around law enforcement and has now dispatched for Paris PD for eight years and wishes, “I would have come to it sooner.”
Harrison began her career with Paris PD in March 1998, hired by at-the-time Lt. Bob Hundley (retired Paris PD Chief) and Chief Karl Lewis.
Prior to working with the police department, Harrison lived in El Reno, Oklahoma, and wanted to move closer to home. She worked for William’s Sporting Goods embroidery/digitizing and ordering letter jackets and patches when at the time PD Officer Mike Boaz (NLISD Chief now) asked if she was interested in a dispatching job.
“Having spoken with several officers, I decided I would throw my hat into the ring,” Harrison said. “I still have the Texas Workforce Commission Card dated 02/10/1998 when I applied and took the typing test.”
McEntyre grew up around law enforcement from her father who went into law enforcement with Lamar County Sherrif’s Office and Paris Police Department right out of the military while she was still a toddler. McEntyre’s father even took a job at Chief of Police in the Montana town she grew up, and has also worked for the state of Montana at the Police academy as an ethics instructor and finished his 30-year career as a sheriff in North Dakota.
“Funnily enough though, even with my exposure to law enforcement my whole life,” McEntyre said, “I never considered a career in that field when I graduated and left home.”
McEntyre said she was working for the Paris Public Library. While she loved working for the library, she began looking for a job paying a little more.
“I saw a dispatch position posted internally with the city and thought, ‘I could probably do that,’” she said. “As it turns out, I really took to dispatching and enjoyed it. In fact, I wish I would have come to it sooner.”
Coming from a law enforcement family, McEntyre said she believes the move to dispatch was “made a little easier” to integrate and understand aspects of what the department does, compared to someone with next-to-no exposure to public safety.
“I’ve been dispatching for eight years now and while it isn’t always easy it can definitely be rewarding for the right person,” McEntyre said, “and I still love my job and plan to continue with my dispatch journey.”
Harrison’s family also has a history in the law enforcement field. Her uncle was an officer for Dallas PD when JFK was shot and was one of the ones who helped wrestle Jack Ruby to the ground when he shot Oswald. Several of her cousins have either been involved in dispatch or law enforcement.
“Never in my life did I ever think I would follow a similar path,” she said.
WHAT’S CHANGED SINCE STARTING?
Since starting in 1998, Harrison said there have been many changes from internet and cell phones to “even the way we run our inquiries on people and items.”
“So much has improved making our job easier, faster and even connected to other agencies across the United States,” Harrison said. “We also have access to notify helicopters for assistance on medical calls as well as GPS and mapping systems that allow us to pinpoint people to get close to where they are and get them help quicker.”
Within her eight years in dispatch, McEntyre said she’s seen a lot of small changes – technology, protocols. She said she’s also seen major changes in leadership recently.
“Mostly, the biggest change is that there has been so much turnover,” McEntyre said. “The reason is that Public Safety really is a stressful career and a lot of people can’t maintain that level of stress for decades, understandably.”
McEntyre said the average “life span” of a dispatch career is about 2-4 years.
DISPATCH, ANYTHING BUT TYPICAL
Harrison described “typical” as “boring, and dispatch is anything but.” She said a typical day for dispatchers varies because one moment they will work on paperwork – entering warrants, criminal trespass entries, running criminal histories – the next they will stay glued to the phone with medical patients in distress or scared callers needing help
“As Captain Danny Huff once said ‘It’s either feast or famine’ in dispatch,” Harrison said, “meaning we can be doing daily tasks one moment then the room explodes with calls for help the next.”
McEntyre said the department can be “sitting there with absolutely nothing going on for several hours, doing paperwork and playing solitaire to being on multiple medicals; a fully involved structure fire; 2 accidents with injuries that need a helicopter; all at the same time and trying to not only coordinate med, fire and police units but to take all the other everyday mundane calls and paperwork that still needs to be attended to for the rest of a 10-, 12-, 14-hour shift.”
With everyone from different backgrounds and interests coming together as a unit to “get things taken care of and help those in desperate need, it’s amazing.”
“We are not perfect but we do what sometimes seems to be impossible,” Harrison said.
CHARACTERISTICS OF A GOOD DISPATCHER
McEntyre said it takes a special kind of person to take on a career in the Public Safety Telecommunications field.
“We’re lucky that we have had and continue to have more than our fair share of these special kinds of people that have worked for and currently work for our agency,” McEntyre said.
For anyone looking into a career in the Public Safety Telecommunications field, Harrison and McEntyre offer their advice with their combined more than 30 years of experience in dispatch and say there are many character traits needed for longevity in the field.
“A thick skin is probably the most important trait you could have,” McEntyre said. “Almost everyone we talk to and help is having a bad day and some are having the worst day of their lives. Sometimes this can translate into taking their bad day out on the person trying to help.”
Harrison echoed McEntyre and said those interested in the job need to have grit, thick skin and the ability to juggle numerous things at one time.
“Phone calls, radio traffic, hearing what other dispatchers are taking in the room around you to knowing by just hearing the tone in a caller’s voice or the officer’s radio traffic that something is not right – it’s an instinct we cultivate over time,” Harrison said. “Having a panoramic scope on all that is going on is a must.”
McEntyre said what Harrison encompassed can all happen within a matter of a couple of minutes.
“This is something that can be developed with work but there also has to be some natural ability aspect,” McEntyre added. “Dispatching is definitely not for everyone but for the right person it can be an amazing and rewarding career.”
Harrison added having a passion to go above and beyond to help others and not seek out recognition for the job.
“Satisfaction for a job well done will be your ‘thanks’,” Harrison said. “A call to serve your community as well as knowing one’s self to step up and be better.”
Dispatchers deal with and hear “a lot of really sad and terrible” situations, and McEntyre says it’s essential “not to take the bad things home with you,” when “you know you did everything in your power to help.”
Harrison said she’s seen many officers and dispatchers come and go.
“A lot of good people have walked through these doors,” she said. “I must say it changes you; it makes you try every day to be better – to do better. I have never regretted my career decision and can not see myself doing anything else.”
PARIS POLICE CHIEF RICHARD SALTER COMMENDS THE TWO
“Courtni was recently selected as our first supervisor over dispatch – who cam from the dispatcher ranks,” Paris Police Chief Richard Salter. “She was already an informal leader and was nominated by several of her peers for the new position – including those who could have competed for the position.”
Commending McEntyre, Salter said McEntyre, in the short time he’s “had the pleasure of working with her,” has outstanding communication skills and is a “very skilled and knowledgeable dispatcher.”
“Like Julia, she is an effective teacher and trainer,” Salter said. “She will make a great supervisor in part due to her integrity, work ethic and goal-oriented attitude.”
Harrison, Salter said, is not just great at her job.
“(Harrison) is a natural leader, a mentor and a very effective teacher and trainer,” Salter said, commending Harrison. “She has a tremendous work ethic and other less experienced dispatchers feel much more confident with Julia in the room, as do the police officers on the street because they know they are in good hands with Julia on the other end of the radio.”
Salter said Harrison is one of the “‘one in a million,’ rare, outstanding employees who know what to do before being asked.”
Photo: Left, Courtni McEntyre with trainee Marina Helms; right, Julia Harrison