As families across Greater Williamsburg awoke to find Christmas presents sitting beneath a gleaming tree, 911 dispatchers in James City County sat waiting for calls of help they would inevitably receive.
“James City 911,” Diane Eno said to a caller. “Where’s your emergency?"
In less than an hour — from 9:06 a.m. to 9:58 a.m. — dispatchers received multiple calls.
The four-woman team received a call from a person looking for help with a heart attack victim who had died. Dispatchers worked together to find the deceased person’s primary care provider on Christmas morning. They spoke with the police officer on scene and coordinated a visit from a medical examiner before they notified Whiting’s Funeral Home of the death.
They received another call in that span for help with a domestic violence situation where a man was said to be walking around with a gun. The caller was able to tell officers the man kept a pistol in his vehicle. The man was arrested just two minutes after officers arrived without a shot fired.
“This job does take a toll on your day-in and day-out,” James City County 911 dispatch supervisor Debbie Foster said. “Sometimes you feel helpless.”
Television screens around the center show dispatchers the flow of Interstate 64 and the metrics for calls. Between 6 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Christmas Day, the dispatch center received 40 calls, Foster said.
“At about 2013, I kinda burned out,” Eno said. She went back to school to learn how to be a teacher, but went back to work as a dispatcher because she loves the work.
“It’s just like she was saying, dispatch just gets in you,” Eno said. “They’ve done studies and stuff. It’s that adrenaline dump. That’s kind of exciting, I’m not going to lie, when they were like ‘the guy’s got his gun and he won’t put it down.’ That’s a hard adrenaline-rush to leave. How do you go from that sort of stuff at work to just sitting in a classroom? I’ve learned to just embrace it.”
Dispatchers don’t always learn about the end result of a call, despite the fact they are the first point of contact for the public, Foster said. The Toano-based dispatch center receives more than 100,000 calls in a year.
Even when businesses and restaurants shutter for the holiday, essential government personnel such as 911 dispatchers, police officers, firefighters, medics, medical examiners and correctional officers remain on duty.
Dispatchers in James City County work 12-hour shifts — either 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. or the 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift, according to Foster. With three to four shifts a week, dispatchers can sometimes spend more time with their colleagues than with their families.
This Christmas was no different than those previous for dispatchers. Family plans had to be moved to before or after work. Holiday feasts would have to wait.
One dispatcher, Ginny Shreaves, said she feels blessed her husband is a stay-at-home dad and was able to watch over their children.
“Just trying to manage your life outside, to make sure everything works … at times it can be hard,” said dispatcher Mallory Murray.
The group finds solace in both their families at home and at work. If it weren’t for the camaraderie in the high-stress job of talking to people, often on the worst day of their lives, work would be incredibly toilsome and tiring, the four agreed.
“We’re like a dysfunctional family. Everybody has their own personality,” Murray said. “We’re here 12 hours a day.”
This Christmas, instead of ham and mashed potatoes, they opted for Chinese takeout from Peking Restaurant.
“We’re people who can make a split-second decision to save a life, but it takes us five hours to order lunch,” Foster said while laughing.
Roberts can be reached at 757-604-1329, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @SPRobertsJr.