Emergency dispatch is a high-stress job that’s certainly not for everybody, but some manage to thrive under the pressure of working in an emergency dispatch center, making a decades-long career out of it. One such dispatcher is Celestine Stanford of the Philadelphia Police Department. In April 2015, her department informed her that she was being recognized for years of dedicated service by being awarded one of three 2015 Dispatcher of the Year awards.
Stanford spoke to Phillymag.com about her career as a dispatcher. This 56-year old grandmother has taken 911 calls for 28 years and has heard it all. She routinely receives at least 300 calls on an average eight-hour shift and can receive at least 50 calls an hour on a busy Friday night.
Prioritizing the calls is an important part of a 911 dispatcher’s job, and Stanford said the priority-one calls are always those that involve a crime in progress—rapes, robberies, or people with guns. Among the top-priority crimes in progress calls, the highest priority is given to those that involve an officer in trouble. These calls are coded priority-zero – as in before priority-one.
Still, she often gets calls that are not top-priority, as they don’t involve anybody being in immediate danger. These calls – coded priority-six – include reports of such crimes as thefts with no suspects or illegal dumping.
Stanford stresses the importance of calling from a landline, which helps ensure the dispatch center is able to more easily identify an exact address. Most of the calls she gets are from cell phones that just give a 5 to 10 block radius of the caller’s location. Surprisingly, Stanford said that a lot of people don’t know their exact location. She is very familiar with Philadelphia and is able to ask questions about landmarks, which could include everything from retail stores located in a particular part of the city, to specific locations within a park by identifying a nearby statue or monument.
When asked what her most common calls are like, Stanford had to admit that they were actually crank calls from kids since this creates a situation where it is difficult to judge how best to respond – you don’t want to divert vital emergency resources for no reason, but you also don’t want to avoid sending help if it is actually needed.
Stanford said that adults misuse the 911 system, too, and that people who are off their medication are frequent callers who contact emergency services when they are distressed about something – even if it doesn’t constitute an actual emergency.
Stanford concluded her interview by saying that she is able to detach herself from the job after leaving work and that she works-out daily as a way to relax. From running to spin class to yoga, Sanford concluded by saying, “Whatever it takes.”