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911 dispatcher: Flooding ‘worst I’ve seen’ for Puget Sound region

A truck being pulled from standing water. (KIRO 7)

In the inaugural “Ask Me Anything” segment on KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula Show on Friday morning, Nancy Fernandez, a King County 911 call screener, and Lucinda Black, a Valley Communications 911 dispatcher and trainer, visited the studio to talk about the rewarding and stressful aspects of their job.

As the first voice you hear when you dial those three critical numbers, dispatchers are responsible for finding out what’s happening from the caller, and gathering the information the officers need.

With the wettest start to a year since 2006 in the Seattle area, dispatchers have been receiving quite a few calls about flooding.

Seattle area gets wettest state to a year in over a decade

“I would say this is the worst I’ve seen it,” Fernandez said. “Just the water level, the continuous rain, a lot of mudslides. Carnation is one of our contract cities — it’s pretty much cut off.”

Luckily, Fernandez said most people are paying attention to the signs and roadblocks so far.

Black and Fernandez both shared stories from their time as dispatchers, including a heartwarming call where Black helped a dad deliver a baby before the medics arrived on scene. The dad later passed out, but not until after the baby was born.

“I have friends who are dispatchers who tell me it really is one of the most rewarding, but also one of the most stressful jobs,” said co-host Ursula Reutin. “And you know you could be the difference between someone’s life or someone’s death.”

Black admitted she tries not to focus on the gravity of the job too directly.

“It’s too easy to get bogged down and feel paralyzed by the weight of that,” Black said.

After 17 years in this job, Black recognizes that her stressful day is not the same as someone else’s. For her, what may seem like a high stress or big event to someone else is often “just Tuesday” for her.

911 dispatchers are trained to maintain their composure and focus on helping the individual on the other end of the line. They listen to background noise, the stress level in the caller’s voice, and know how to find ways to engage the caller when they can tell something is going on, including asking yes or no questions to avoid tipping off anyone who may be listening.

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“Your voice is like a gear shift,” Fernandez said. “You can use it. You don’t want to pour gas on the fire. So if I talk low, you know, I can get them to be on that level and have them listen to what I’m telling them, help them out.”

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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