Guy in the Chair: A Look Inside the Casper-Natrona County Public Safety Communications Center
You remember the game 'Telephone.'
You get in a line with all of your friends. The person at the beginning of the line says something to the person next to them. Then, that person tells the next person. And so on. By the end of the line, the bit is that what the last person hears is so far off from what the first person said, it's humorous.
Now, imagine if that 'game' happened every time somebody made a 911 call.
That's how important Dispatch Professionals are to their community. They are tasked with receiving, relaying, directing, and distributing calls to all of the major law enforcement agencies in Natrona County, from the Casper Police Department, to the Evansville Police Department, the Mills Police Department, the Natrona County Sheriff's Office, the Wyoming Highway Patrol, and all of the fire departments in the county as well.
It's not an easy job. The Dispatch Center is made up of four teams. Each team has three to four people, with most of them working 12 hour shifts. Each person sits in front of a 5-screen setup and, miraculously, they are able to navigate those screens with a precision and grace that has to be seen to be believed. They're taking emergency and non-emergency phone calls constantly, while sending out first responders to a variety of incidents that take place all across Casper and beyond.
According to a post from the Casper Police Department, "In 2021, the Casper-Natrona County Public Safety Communications Center answered 169,426 phone calls. 30,000 of those were 911 calls. That breaks down to around 460 phone calls a day.... 90% of which were answered within 10 seconds."
It's not an easy job. It's a job that requires a certain type of person with a certain amount of skill, patience, and temperament.
It's a job that requires somebody like Tawny Arellano.
Arellano has been working in dispatch communication for more than 5 years; 3 of which has been spent with the Casper Police Department.
"I had a traumatic injury, a traumatic experience as a kid and, thinking back when I got older, I was like, 'I want to know what those people do,'" Arellano explained. "So I applied for a dispatching job in another state, went through the entire process, and fell in love with it. I've never regretted it once."
Arellano said that in order to become a Dispatch Professional, individuals have to take six weeks of classroom training, followed by four months of hands-on training on each channel.
It's a lot of time spent training, because it's a lot of things to manage all at the same time.
"We see everything and hear everything," Arellano said. "It's a lot, but I love this job. We take the call, tell the responders where to go, what's going on, we're trying to get information relayed out to everybody else."
They also have to remain calm in highly intense, stressful situations. They're even trained in crisis management, for when people call 911, simply because they don't have anybody else to talk to.
"We're trained to handle [situations like that]," Arellano said. "So if they're willing, and don't hang up on us, we'll stay on the phone with them until officers are with them. And it's just a matter of asking them, 'Do you want to hurt yourself? Have you made up your mind?' It's just a matter of talking to them like anybody else and just getting to the root of the problem. It's just talking to them. Most of the time, that's all they really want; just someone to talk to."
And so, they talk. But they also listen. Dispatch professionals have to listen more than anything. They're listening to phone calls, they're listening to radios. They're listening to each other. They're picking out the pieces of information that are important and they're making split-second decisions that are, quite literally, life or death matters.
"We're doing more than one thing at a time, most of the time," Arellano stated. "Most of the time, we're multitasking at an unheard of level. So if we ask somebody to hold on, it's because we genuine need them to just simmer down for a minute. Especially with our phones, most of the time while we're taking a call, we're also sending out units, whether it's fire or law. And so if we ask somebody to hold, it's so we can relay information out to the room or to one of our units."
Arellano also revealed that if somebody calls the 911 line, and then hangs up and calls again, it ties up two lines; meaning there are two less chances for others to get through.
It's easy to panic in emergency situations. Nobody enjoys calling 911. It's usually a tense, scary, sometimes life or death matter. But the dispatch center is there to ease some of that panic. They're there to talk calmly, and compassionately, assuring callers that things will be okay.
And, really, that's their biggest job. Every single day, every hour, every minute these people are navigating a labyrinth of trauma. And through it all, they demonstrate compassion, grace, and dignity. They know what their job is, and they do it well. They protect their community and they protect those men and women out there on the frontlines who are putting their lives on the line every single day.
"At least for me, at the end of my day, I've done a good job if all of them get to go home safe to their families," Arellano said. "I want to get our callers safe and make sure they're okay, of course, but at the end of the day, our officers are my priority."
There's a reason that the best action movies always have a 'guy in the chair.'
Spider-Man has Ned. Batman has Alfred. The Angels have Charlie. Every single hero has somebody in the background, telling them where to go, what moves to make, who to save.
For the Casper Police Department and every other first responder agency, there is the Casper-Natrona County Public Safety Communications Center. They are this town's 'Guy in the Chair,' taking calls, directing traffic and, quite literally, saving lives. It's a hard job. It's long hours, late nights, and less 'acknowledgement.'
But the men and women doing this job don't do it for the acknowledgement. They do it because they know it's an important job. They do it because they genuinely want to make sure the city and surrounding areas are safe.
They do it because they know this isn't simply a game of telephone. When they take a call, they're taking other peoples' lives into their hands and they're saying 'It's okay, we're here now, you're not alone.'
And for that, this week and every week, we thank them.