Since 1968, when AT&T made 911 the official phone number for emergency use, people have had quicker, more efficient access to emergency services. But who are the people picking up those phone calls? One of them is Leslie Jackson—a wife, mom, daughter, friend.
Leslie has been working as a dispatcher for Fayette County’s 911 for almost four years. At a time when she was struggling with deciding what to do with her future, Leslie says she came across a Facebook post from Fayette County 911 saying they were hiring. She prayed to God to direct her, sent in her application, and got the job.
Leslie is the Shift Supervisor of a team that has answered the calls of those in need during some pretty dire situations. She recently had a coworker who saved a little girl’s life by giving CPR instructions over the phone. “That’s the reason we’re here,” she says. “It’s moments like that when we realize why we do what we do. It’s stressful, and there are bad calls coming in, and it’s really easy to fall into the negativity, but as long as you focus on those really positive moments like helping to save a life over the phone, then that’s your moment. That’s what we live for. That’s why we’re there.”
Fayette County dispatchers are outfitted with EMD (Emergency Medical Dispatch) cards that range from instructions on CPR to child birth instructions to instructing people to put away their pets before services arrive. The EMD cards, approved by battalion leaders and doctors at Piedmont Hospital, also help the dispatch team determine the severity of a situation and help set a response plan in place, whether it requires one medic or multiple personnel. During their few moments of downtime, Leslie and her team review the cards regularly.
Unlike some other organizations, Fayette County’s 911 dispatchers are answering phone calls as well as handling the radio to send emergency services to the correct location. It’s a job of ultimate skill and organization, all the while remaining calm and focused on the person on the other end of the line. “We are balancing a lot when a call comes in. Most of the time, we’re speaking with a caller and relaying important information to the police at the same time.”
Dispatchers stay on the phone with a caller until emergency services are on the scene, and sometimes even after that. “We will stay on the phone with a caller until they feel safe enough to hang up,” Leslie adds.
She firmly believes that every emergency is important. “What’s an emergency to one person might not be to another. What they consider an emergency, might not be to me, but that’s irrelevant. Maybe they’ve never experienced anything worse than this.”
There have been times when she has needed to step away after a distressing call. She remembers one particular call that reminded her so much of an emergency situation she was in as a child, and she says it took her right back to that time. “I had to get up immediately,” she says. “I wasn’t going to freak out, but I really didn’t want everybody to see me cry. I finished the call, got help to the caller, and got up and went to the bathroom and just cried. I hadn’t thought of the tragedy of it in a long time.”
“There’s not a lot of recuperation time between calls,” Leslie says. “When I need to step away I like to grab onto a piece of home. That’s how my husband (a firefighter with Fayette County Fire Department) puts it. As soon as we’re finished with a bad call, whether I’m on the call or he responds to it, just making contact with each other for that little touch of home. I might call my mom’s house to talk to each of my kids for a minute, to tell them I love them. And then I can move on.”
“When I get back in the radio room, we can talk it out because we understand what’s going on,” she adds. “There’s just a natural peer support. We have to rely on each other for a lot of things whether it’s just working a call or finishing up a call that we need to talk about. Sometimes we need to vent. And once it’s out, it’s out, and we’re good.”
Each day, Leslie encourages team building exercises first thing each shift to boost the team’s morale, reconnect with each other, and relieve stress and build resilience. Katye Vogt, 911 Director says, “Leslie is one of the most dedicated and fastidious people I have ever met. It is no surprise that she was chosen by her peers as Employee of the Year for 2018, and again for 2019. Her positive nature and willingness to help is evident to everyone she meets. She is an amazing asset to our Fayette County 911 team!”
“What we do as call takers and dispatchers, we’re not there for a paycheck, that’s for certain,” Leslie assures. “We are there because we genuinely care about helping someone.”
Fayette County’s non-emergency number is 770-461-HELP (4357), but you should always dial 911 in case of emergency.