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Calling for Help: A profile on emergency dispatchers

Communications center; by Candy Thomson

Communications center; by Candy Thomson

When trouble strikes on the Chesapeake Bay, in the woods or at a state park, the call for help is answered by one of most important Department of Natural Resources employees you will never see: a police dispatcher.

The Maryland Natural Resources Police has nearly two dozen police communication operators working at the agency’s 24/7 dispatch center in Annapolis. They monitor all radio traffic, including mutual aid and marine VHF channels, take calls from the public and dispatch them to officers, while simultaneously entering that information into the Computer Aided Dispatch system. They must remain calm under pressure.

Paulette Pawling; by Candy Thomson

Paulette Pawling; by Candy Thomson

“I can’t slip, I have to be focused at all times,” explains John Anderson, who has been with the agency for nearly five years.

Scope and vigilance

The staff handles calls not only for the police but also for department units, from forests and parks to fisheries and wildlife. Last year, the center processed about 38,000 citizen calls.

The dispatchers are at the center of the action for conservation as well traditional law enforcement calls.

“You could go from taking a call about a sick animal one minute to checking someone’s fishing license the next, to suddenly getting a call for a boating accident, where people’s lives depend on how fast you react to the situation and carry out your duties to get the help they need,” says Leonard Mathesius II, an eight-year veteran behind the console.

Did you know? The Maryland Natural Resources Police is the state’s oldest law enforcement agency. These officers have the same authority as state troopers and additionally handle law enforcement on state lands and water.

Answering the call

Officer First Class Amelia Nelson is comforted knowing that a dispatcher is always at the other end of the call.

“I was responding to a vessel in distress in the middle of a thunderstorm,” she recalls of the run that took her across the bay. “Dispatch was aware of the weather and the sea conditions and was constantly in touch with me to make sure I was okay. They even asked me to let them know when I returned from my patrol boat safe and sound.”

The job of a dispatcher is both rewarding and challenging. Dispatchers are tethered to their workstations with very limited breaks. They work rotating shifts, including weekends and holidays, often sacrificing time with their families.


Michael Barr; by Candy Thomson

Michael Barr; by Candy Thomson

Life-saving efforts

Newcomer Beth Coleman, with the agency for 15 months, says, “It’s a job that I look forward to go to every day. You never know what you’re going to encounter, from the smallest things to saving someone’s life… it’s all in a day’s work.”

Recently Coleman received a call about an empty car with the motor running in a state park. A motor vehicle check returned only a company name for the license plate. Coleman’s tenacity and dedication paid off as she searched several databases to link the vehicle to a missing suicidal woman. Officers on the scene stepped up their search, found the woman and rescued her from the water.

“I look forward to the challenge and going above and beyond what you have to do,” says Coleman, “Always hoping for a good outcome.”


True teamwork

While dispatching has its highs and lows, there is no denying that it is a vital and essential part of the overall mission. Dispatchers are the lifeline to the public they serve and to the officers in the field.

“Often in stressful situations, I have requested something from the dispatch center only to be told that in their diligence, the dispatcher has already taken care of it,” says Master Officer Norris Shannon. “That’s teamwork, and we couldn’t do the job without them.”

Mathesius sums up life in the dispatch center: “I think the best thing that I take away from this career—that beats absolutely anything that someone could give me—is knowing just how great an impact we make on someone’s life.”

Emergency Hotline 410-260-8888

Article by Shakira Johnson—Natural Resources Police communications trainer.
Appears in Vol. 19, No. 3 of the Maryland Natural Resource magazine, summer 2016.