A 911 call taker outlines an unusual job

June 7th, 2017 | by Santan Sun
A 911 call taker outlines an unusual job
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At night when many people are at home unwinding after work, Spencer Jaeckel of Chandler is on high alert, responding to 911 calls made to the Gilbert Police Department.

Jaeckel, 27, is a 911 call taker, meaning he answers calls from residents about domestic violence, burglaries, assaults and other potentially life-threatening crimes.

He also handles calls about less-urgent issues, including illegally parked vehicles, traffic accidents and even cats stuck in trees.

As part of the police department’s communications division of almost 30 people, housed on East Civic Center Drive, he answers 911 emergency calls and non-emergency calls on the department’s business line.

Jaeckel’s mission is to find out the nature and location of emergencies within the first 30 seconds of talking to the caller during 911 calls.

When answering the business line, he answers calls that are not emergencies, including tjose from officers asking to get transferred to the detention center or seeking help tracking down information.

Jaeckel, who’s worked as a 911 call taker at Gilbert Police Department for three years, enjoys trying to help people with a variety of needs on the phone. He got his start as a 911 call taker working for the North East King County Regional Public Safety Communication Agency (NORCOM) for about 2½ years.

“No day is the same,” Jaeckel said. “You never know what could come in. It can go from busy to calm. It’s like predicting weather.”

He said he might answer about 100 calls in a shift. Jaeckel usually works from noon to 10 p.m. Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday but he’s also worked overnight, from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. to 4 a.m.
“I kind of like nights,” he said. “I’m nocturnal-ish.”

Coffee and his enthusiasm for the job keep him fueled as he calmly asks questions, selecting from one of about 200 different categories of calls. He also inputs names, addresses and important details about incidents into a computer system. On a computer screen, Jaeckel navigates a map, pinpointing, as closely as he can, the location of the incident.

The information on incidents goes to police officers’ laptop computers in their vehicles. But a dispatcher looks at what Jaeckel has inputted and contacts the officers to tell them where to respond.

During one recent night shift, Jaeckel calmly got information from a teenager claiming to be running away from a family member because he felt his life was in danger.

Jaeckel asked how the teen felt threatened and whether the family member had a weapon. He found out where the teen was located and where the family member was when the incident started. As Jaeckel gathered information, officers went to the home where the family member had been and to find the teen, who claimed he had found a safe place outside and evded the family member.

Jaeckel also talked to a woman who heard noises on her back door and was afraid someone was trying to break in. He told her to lock herself and her children in an upstairs room while they waited for police to arrive.

The noise ended up being a neighbor, knocking on her door. No one was attempting to break into her home.

Also on a recent night, Jaeckel talked to a woman who claimed an adult family member had attacked her. He asked her for her name, her address and the name of the attacker, and he reassured her police were on their way to the home.

Jaeckel also took calls that same night about a suspicious person in a park, a possible domestic violence incident overheard by a neighbor and a possible drug deal.

“The first thing I ask for is (an) address,” he said. “Some people will call and tell a story.

“We’re trained to interrupt and get an address,” Jaeckel said. “Once people get in emergency mode and call, sometimes they forget their own address.”

Fortunately for panicked callers, 911 call takers can often track their location, even if they call from a cell phone.

If a crime is in progress, it’s important to get a description of the suspect and the direction they’re heading.

Sometimes Jaeckel will ask people whether they hear breaking glass or footsteps in their home and if they have had any problems with neighbors or former lovers.

While Jaeckel said callers often are understandably scared, he tries to stay calm to help them calm down.

“We reassure them we’re coming,” he said. “I’ll say that multiple times.”

Jaeckel said sometimes people will complain police are not arriving quickly enough to handle their incidents.

“I usually tell them, ‘All calls are important, but sometimes we have more calls than officers,’” he said. “It’s life before property.”

Gilbert Police Department’s goal is to respond to priority-level zero calls, which are serious crimes in progress, within 5½ minutes. But on average in fiscal year 2015-16 officers responded to such calls in four minutes and 11 seconds, according to the police department’s 2016 Annual Report.

For priority-level three calls, which are low-priority calls where there’s no concern about a loss of life, the police department’s goal was to respond to these issues within 45 minutes. But Gilbert Police on average reacted to priority-level three calls in 27 minutes and 18 seconds, the report said.

Jaeckel said the most stressful incident he’s encountered while working as a 911 call taker was a huge fire at an apartment complex under construction last April that involved about 100 firefighters. Police had to shut down Warner Road between Lindsay and Gilbert roads and the fire spread to an L.A. Fitness across the street, as well as an occupied apartment complex.

“We got a lot of calls,” Jaeckel said. “People could see the smoke miles and miles away.

“You could feel the heat.” Gilbert Police Department dispatcher Lee Youngs said even when things get intense on the job, Jaeckel keeps his cool and makes callers feel comfortable.

“Spencer’s awesome,” Youngs said. “He’s really good with callers. He gets through to them.”

Youngs said their jobs require a lot of focus for long periods of time.

“You’re always super-concentrated,” she said. “In some ways, Spencer’s job is harder than what I do because the phones are constantly nonstop.”

Jaeckel said his first year as a 911 call taker he was “pretty nervous.” Now if he gets stressed, he will take a 15-minute break and walk around. Outside of work he likes to ride ATVs, work out, read books and watch Netflix.

He hopes to earn a bachelor’s degree in public policy and public service or emergency response and operations at Arizona State University.

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