911 dispatchers say staying calm is key to the job

Suzette Lowe

When it becomes necessary to call 911, the one needing help wants a calm, knowledgeable, reassuring voice to be on the other end.

When police officers or first responders are sent on an emergency call, they want the voice giving them the details to be calm, knowledgeable and reassuring as well.

When Diana Santiago and Triston Lanham are the dispatchers, those attributes are in full force.

“I have received so many compliments on these two from both our first responders and from the public,” said Montana Boggess, director of the county’s 911 center. “All my dispatchers do a good job, but these two are the gold standard.”

Lanham and Santiago came to the Jackson County 911 center through different paths.

For the 24-year-old Lanham, emergency service and dispatch have been part of his entire life.

Dispatcher Triston Lanham answers call during his shift at the 911 center.

“My dad was a firefighter,” he said. “And mom worked on the ambulance. She’d take me to dispatch with her. It was just natural for me to be drawn to this line of work.”

Prior to coming to Jackson County, Lanham worked in Kanawha County.

“The difference there was volume and the number of dispatchers,” he said. “Here, of course, there aren’t as many calls, but many are very intense.”

Santiago, 27, had no background in the field before applying for a position.

Diana Santiago, 911 dispatcher, focuses as she takes an emergency call.

“I had known Montana through another job,” she said. “She suggested applying here because she felt I’d be a perfect fit. It was a whole new world, but I’ve loved it from the first day.”

Recently, the two were honored by Jackson County 911 and the Jackson County Commission for their work in two harrowing situations.

Diana Santiago and Triston Lanham were recognized for outstanding work.

The first involved both when they worked on the same shift, something that happens rarely.

On July 15, there was a dangerous, high-speed pursuit by police. While common in the county, dispatchers have had to deal with pursuits on occasion. This night was different.

“One of the officers wrecked,” said Santiago. “We heard it, but we certainly couldn’t panic. Our concern was for the officer but also for those following behind.”

Lanham said he and his partner simply stayed ‘in the zone.’

“They need our calmness,” he said. “We’re taking their calls and concerns and, at the same time, taking others as well.”

After it was all over, Lanham admitted there was a little bit of internal panic but as Santiago stated, “You’d never know it.”

“Yeah,” Lanham said with a laugh. “Afterwards, I remember thinking ‘well that just happened.'”

The other situation involved the flash floods that occurred on June 10. Santiago and her partner that night, Cory Walters, had to deal with hundreds of calls.

“That was a night I’ll never forget,” she said. “We had so many calls it’s hard to even imagine. The Ripley Fire Department, in particular, was overwhelmed.”

In a letter sent to Boggess, the department’s Captain Benjamin Hersman commended the county 911 administration and communicators.

“The hard work and dedication allowed our agency to focus on the tasks we had to perform,” the letter stated. “The were continuously checking on us to make sure we had sent someone to check on each call.”

Boggess said that both Santiago and Lanham are known for their care and concern for the first responders and police.

“These two often check up on those answering the calls to see how they are,” said the 911 director. “They just really care and they show that.”

A normal shift is 12 hours, with a two-week rotation. Lanham and Santiago often work the night shift.

“Things seem to always be more intense at night,’ said Santiago.

No matter who they are partnered with, Boggess says, both help the other dispatcher be better.

“We have eight full-time employees and four part-time,” she said. “They all do a good job, but when they see the extra that Diana and Triston put in to the job, it inspires them to do better.”

One quality each brings is something that most employers wouldn’t want.

“They both keep their voices and responses in a monotone,” Boggess said. “This is such an asset. You’d never know they were stressed or that they are dealing with life-threatening situations many times. It’s that sense of calm that they bring. One other thing that Diana adds is being able to communicate in Spanish. That is a tremendous help.”

One caller followed up her experience with a text to the 911 director.

Janet Bever Martin described the situation she was in, saying that the call involved her “screaming and hyperventilating.”

The truck her husband was half-way in, which had a boat attached, slipped out of gear. The truck jackknifed and knocked her husband down causing Martin to believe he had been run over. The result was positive, with her husband being bruised badly but no serious injury.

“I can’t remember the dispatcher’s name, but he deserves recognition,” Martin texted. “He wouldn’t let me off the phone until I was calm and Ronnie was ok and didn’t need an ambulance.”

That dispatcher was Triston Lanham.

In the midst of all the 911 calls, some extreme emergencies, some less serious, there is down-time.

“We do a lot of things during that time,’ Santiago said. “Sometimes we work on our continuing education courses but we also cook, play cards and we read a lot of books.”

Lanham added, “A lot of times we just take a moment to sit quietly and relax.”

While working as the 911 center can sometimes seem overwhelming with so many calls coming in at one time, both dispatchers say the system is really a well-oiled machine.

“When I first came here, it was a little different,” Lanham said. “But it’s gotten so much more efficient and the 911 center has gained a lot of respect in the past few years.”

Still, it’s not an easy job.

“I hear things I’ll never forget,” Lanham said. “There are calls I’ve gotten that I’ll never un-hear.”

Ultimately though it comes down to the callera and what is perhaps the worst moments of their lives.

“If you want to help, you have to forget about yourself,” Santiago said. “That person on the other end of the call has to come first.”