Unsung Heroes: On the job with Gulfport 911 dispatchers

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - They are probably the first people you call during an emergency, and in many cases, their voices calm nerves during a crisis. Yet, you rarely hear about them. 911 dispatchers are considered the unsung heroes of law enforcement.

Gulfport dispatchers take more than 900 emergency and non-emergency calls a day. Meet some of those people on the other line and hear how they handle the stress, the sometimes crazy calls, and the emotional toll that comes with the job.

"911, what is your emergency?" the dispatcher asked the caller.

The 911 calls to Gulfport Police revealed the horror inside the Winn Dixie store on Pass Road two years ago. Frightened customers described in chilling detail about a hostage drama.

"Yes ma'am. I'm at the Winn Dixie. I just saw a man walk in with an automatic weapon," a woman frantically replied.

"We have a man with a shot gun. He's got his wife hostage in the bakery now," another woman said on the phone.

"Ok. Ok. Ok. I need you to stay on the line with me," the dispatcher told her.

The day was September 8, 2011. Heavily-armed Clayton Blanchard walked into the store and held his estranged wife at gunpoint. Tara Busby was one of the dispatchers on duty that day.

"It was very scary, especially for the people in the store. We were taking calls from people inside saying they were terrified," said Busby. "We had to see if they could get out, if there was any way they felt it was safe enough to get out without putting themselves in danger."

"All right, we're getting officers on the way over there. OK?" the dispatcher reassured a caller.

Two hours later, Blanchard released the woman unharmed, then, turned the gun on himself.  He died a short time later. Throughout the ordeal, Busby kept her cool.

"You don't think about it while you're in the moment. You just do it. You do what you know you have to do," said Busby.

The Gulfport Police dispatchers have handled plenty of distraught calls, from those threatening suicide to domestic violence victims. Each dispatcher in the Communications Center takes about 8,000 police and fire calls a year.

On one October day, a search was underway for a missing man with Alzheimer's. On another line, there was a hazardous chemical leak.  Another dispatcher was handling an odd traffic situation.

"The paper towels on I-10 in the westbound lanes causing traffic problems," she explained.

Of course, not all the calls are considered emergencies.

"They'll call us because their dog's running loose. They'll call us if their power is out on 911. They'll call us if the street's flooding. Please come tell my child to go to school. That is just the craziest thing to me," said dispatcher Doris Schultz.

"I don't understand why people would call 911 because of a turtle. They're scared of it. They want it out of their yard," said Busby.

The one call they all dread is Gulfport Code 1099: "Officer Needs Emergency Assistance". Doris Schultz remembers dispatching officers to a bad wreck involving one of their own.

"I was on the radio at the time the calls came in and it was a motorcycle accident," Schultz recalled.

On August 14, 2008, Lieutenant Rob Curry's motorcycle collided with a car on Highway 49.

"When I found out it was him, that's all I could think about was he was just in here that morning and we were talking and visiting about the present he had bought for his wife and it was hard. That's probably the worst thing I've lived through here," said Schultz.

Yet, through the emotional stress, the 12-hour shifts, and the high turnover rates, 20-years later, Schultz still finds her job fulfilling.

"It's a rewarding job. It has its moments. It's hard," said Schultz.  "A lot of the calls hit home. I remember when I first started working here and my kids were younger, the abuse calls that would come in and the children that were killed in car accidents. I mean, that really, really affects you. But in order for you to do your job, you have to distance yourself. It's really hard to do that."

Ashly DeBoard certainly appreciates what the dispatchers do. She is a Gulfport patrol officer who has been assigned to dispatcher duty while she awaits the birth of her baby.

"They are our link to the outside. If I'm running after somebody or my partner has been injured or I need assistance, I can't pick up my cell phone and call. I have to call them and they're going to be able to get somebody to me the quickest way they know how to," said DeBoard.

Tara Busby has a personal reason for wanting to be that life line for the officers and firefighters in the field. She is getting married in a few weeks to a Gulfport firefighter.

"Your officers are safe at the end of the day. That's what it's all about, getting those officers home," said Busby.

To give you an idea of just how stressful a dispatcher's job can be, Gulfport Police Chief Leonard Papania said dispatchers tend to get burned-out after two to three years. And just so you know, repeatedly dialing 911 for no legitimate reason is a misdemeanor. Those who abuse the 911 system could face a fine and/or jail time.

Copyright 2013 WLOX. All rights reserved.