RANCHO SANTA FE — They are rarely seen, but these oft-time unsung heroes are on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to help people on the worst day of their lives and to make sure that that help is on the way.
They are the public safety telecommunicators who staff emergency dispatch centers around the world and right here in Rancho Santa Fe. Named the North County Joint Powers Agency, NorthCom for short, it handles emergency calls for Rancho Santa Fe, Solana Beach, Encinitas, Del Mar, Oceanside, Carlsbad, San Marcos, Vista, Elfin Forest and the Rancho Santa Fe Patrol.
The dispatch center is located above the fire department on El Fuego behind R. Roger Rowe School.
“We handle just about anything that could go wrong with a person,” said dispatcher Mike Parkinson, who has been on the job since 1986.
Each year during the second week of April, these very first responders are honored with their own week.
Locally there is an open house and luncheon with representatives from the cities they serve. Low key to be sure, but these special people are not out for a big, public pat on the back. They would rather remain in the background, being the voice on the radio, helping people.
As can be imagined, this job is not for just anyone. It takes a special type of person to be able to do it day in and day out, according to Jeff Logan, operations supervisor.
“This job takes a lot of time and a lot of time away from family,” he said.
But, for those who can do it, the job is rewarding.
“I love it,” said Kasey Willingham, who has been on the job since November. “It’s the kind of job where I feel I help people and make a difference.
Jennifer Marasco, a six-year veteran, said she likes dealing with the public.
“I like dealing with problems and being able to provide a service,” she said. “It’s a fulfilling job when you help somebody.”
For Melinda Valentini, a nine-year veteran and shift supervisor, it is the variety of problems with which she deals in a day.
“Every day is different, she said. “There is nothing typical. I love it.”
Still, most dispatchers have a certain type of call that affects them more than the others. It usually involves children, either as the victim or a child who is on the phone because a parent is hurt or injured, Logan said.
Child drownings are difficult for everyone.
He said each person is aware of their trigger calls and deals with them afterward either by talking to their peers or a counselor.
Logan had one call from a foster mother trying to talk down her foster child who was having an extremely bad day.
Logan didn’t realize until later how much the call had affected him, because he had a childhood that brought him very close to being placed into the system.
Hard on everyone was the Witch Creek Fire, which burned parts of Rancho Santa Fe and in just about every part of NorthCom’s jurisdiction.
Everyone came in and stayed on helping direct emergency operations until the worst was over.
“We could see the fire out of the windows,” Logan said. “We were able to stay because this is a shelter in place building and we had (fire trucks) here to protect us.”
Some of the dispatchers’ own neighborhoods were being evacuated, but they stayed.
“They wanted to stay,” Logan said.
When NorthCom officials go looking for dispatchers, they look for people who are cool under pressure and who can multi-task, said Charlie Knust, communications manager. They must calmly be able to give instructions for CPR or how to deliver a baby when the person on the other end of the line may be on the edge of panic or way beyond.
He said food servers make good dispatchers because they are able to handle several things going on at one time.
Candidates are first run through a six-week, in-house academy that covers orientation, policy and procedures using the radio and a final exam. If they pass that, then they continue with their training with a seasoned dispatcher who helps them until they are able to handle calls by themselves.
Only about 50 percent of applicants actually finish the training and go to work.
To learn more about the JPA, call (858) 756-3006 or visit ncdjpa.org.
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