‘We’re the first line of defense’

Emergency dispatchers (from left) Courtney Quinn, McCall Buckingham, Samantha Collins and Stephanie Goins stand outside the Allie Morgan Communications Center on Thursday night after finishing their shift.

Assuming a leadership position in the middle of a health emergency is challenging in any industry.

For McCall Buckingham, there’s even more at stake.

Buckingham, a day shift supervisor at the Paducah Police Department’s E911 Communications Services Division, took on that role in early March, when COVID-19 fears were at a fever pitch.

“I’m trying to adjust to leading this shift in the middle of a global pandemic,” she said Thursday.

This week marks National Telecommunicators’ Week, aimed at recognizing the value emergency dispatchers provide to their communities.

In addition to making sure every call now includes health-related questions and managing shifts of dispatchers who are also under personal and professional stress, Buckingham has to keep up with continually updated policies and procedures.

“Just in the month of April, we’ve had at least 20 policy and procedure changes,” she said.

Division Manager Robyn Hood said the call volume has dropped about 30%, whether from an actual decrease in incidents or people being more reluctant to call for help for health considerations.

“Fewer people moving around, fewer people getting stopped,” Hood said. “… I think, overall, folks (in the community) are doing great.”

But the decrease in call volume comes with an increase in stress regarding the calls that do come in, Buckingham said.

“I feel like we’ve got kind of more on our shoulders than we already did have,” she said, and that includes bearing a greater responsibility for informing first responders what dangers a call might entail.

“We’re the first line of defense for the firefighters and for the officers.”

Dispatcher Samantha Collins said callers can seem more agitated and have more questions about what to expect, especially now that emergency agencies have changed some response procedures due to health concerns.

“There’s so many things that we have to make sure are covered,” Collins said.

“We’re having to explain to the public why we’re asking those questions, and why an officer may or may not be coming to their home.”

While even during the best of times taking emergency calls necessitates quick thinking and considerations about officer safety, concerns about viral spread can turn what would have been an unremarkable response into a life-threatening situation.

“Every call that our officers respond to could typically be a call where they’re going to come in contact with someone who’s been infected,” Collins said.

She now treats every call where an officer responds as if there were a weapon involved.

In addition to the high stress at work, both Buckingham and Collins have family members with health conditions. Buckingham’s mother, who suffers from COPD, is considered an essential employee at Fulton County Jail.

“I worry about her. She’s dealing with the public,” Buckingham said.

As an only child who lives alone, having family an hour away and out of reach due to social distancing guidelines takes a toll.

“It really sucks to be an hour away from your parents … and have to talk with them on FaceTime,” she said.

Collins, a licensed practical nurse, has been a caretaker for her father who recently had a pacemaker replaced, but isn’t able to visit him with the restrictions in place.

“It’s really hard for me because I can’t go out there and take care of him like I wish I could,” she said.

Further increasing the stress on emergency workers, nationwide shutdowns and staffing concerns mean dispatchers and responders have less time off.

“Stress relief, you can’t have it right now. You’ve just got to wait,” Buckingham said.

Despite the mounting pressure of the job and personal concerns, Collins said she recognizes the value of the service dispatchers provide and the critical care given by the responders they send out.

“They know the risk involved … but they do what they do and they love what they do because they love the community,” Collins said.

“It’s something that I love and I wouldn’t change it.”

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