Unseen heroes

Local 911 emergency operators have tough but rewarding job

T-R PHOTO BY ADAM SODDERS Telecommunications operators like Dan McCready, front, and Caitlin Nemechek, work tirelessly to help people in Marshalltown, Marshall County and beyond deal with emergencies and send help where it’s needed. Balloons hung in their office to celebrate National Public Safety Telecommunications Week.

Hidden in the bowels of the Marshalltown Police Department building is a room resembling something out of a comic book: generally dark, lit mainly by arrays of computer screens displaying massive amounts of information.

This is where all 911 calls for the Marshalltown Police Department and Marshall County Sheriff’s Office go, this is where emergencies are dealt with and lives are saved.

“I get to help people, and not just with dire emergencies, but also for everyday problems people encounter as well,” said telecommunications operator Caitlin Nemechek, who’s been on the job for two years. “You’ve got to be able to multi-task.”

This week is National Public Safety Telecommunications Week, and balloons celebrating the week were strung throughout the dark communication center, giving an air of levity to an otherwise serious-looking setting.

Nemechek is one of 12 telecommunication staff members who work in the communication center. Two of her coworkers, fellow telecommunications operator Dan McCready and Public Safety Communications Supervisor Teresa Lang, also said they enjoy being able to help people in emergencies.

“There’s no better feeling than to know you’ve helped someone in their time of need,” Lang said.

The 26-year communications veteran has seen all kinds of situations while working with area law enforcement officers and the public, from the ridiculous to the soberly serious.

She said the calls that have “stuck with” have to do with the death of a child or a suicide call. One call in particular haunts her.

“I was in here when we had an officer get shot a few years ago,” Lang said, referring to a incident in 2012 that resulted in MPD officer Vern Jefferson being shot in the leg. Though he survived the ordeal, Lang said there was a space of time where his status was unknown.

“Hearing those words, ‘Shots fired, I’ve been hit,’ … there were four of us in here, there was collective silence, you could here a pin drop, we all took a breath, and then it was complete chaos,” Lang said. “That was … I hope that I never, ever have to experience anything like that again.”

McCready and Nemechek agreed that the hardest calls on a regular basis are ones involving children and suicide. However, Lang said keeping calm is a quintessential part of the job.

“You keep a calm voice, steady as she goes, because how we talk when we get calls reflects on the field units,” she said. “We don’t want them driving faster than they need to because they heard something in our voice.”

McCready has been in public safety telecommunications for a total of 14 years, and he said he didn’t initially appreciate the importance of the job.

“I didn’t really realize when I was younger that that was what I wanted to do, but it is rewarding, helping someone in their time of need,” he said.

Nemechek said another important aspect of her work is to keep her professional and home lives separated.

“We work long shifts, so between family and work, you have to find the balance,” she said. “You can’t take home this job, because it’ll eat you alive.”

McCready agreed, adding it took him “quite a few years” to learn to compartmentalize life at work and life at home.

On a lighter note, all three telecommunications staff said they get some pretty ridiculous calls from time to time.

“I remember a call from someone asking if it’s safe to feed squirrels a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” Lang said, adding center fields many nuisance calls about peoples’ neighbors.

She stressed the importance of only calling 911 for emergencies.

“People call 911 to figure out when the band is playing for RAGBRAI, they call 911 to find the best hotel in town,” Lang said. “It’s kind of frustrating that they’re tying up an emergency line for a non-emergency call.”

To have success in their field, McCready, Lang and Nemechek said multi-tasking, proper training, a willingness to work long and odd hours, and a flexible schedule are musts. There is a six-month civil service process to become a 911 operator, and it’s arduous.

A cause for excitement among the telecommunications staff is the upcoming move to the joint fire-police station. The setup will offer far more space for the operators, among other perks.

“I can’t wait,” Nemechek said, adding with a laugh “Windows! Bring us out of the dungeon!”

Despite the difficulties brought on by the job, Nemechek said the communications staff as well as the field staff are a tight-knit group.

“Even though we’re still sitting in the chair, our minds are always out there seeing what field officers are doing and building it in our heads,” she said. “This is a whole family down here, and upstairs, the whole building.”

Lang said the operator staff has a built-in support system among coworkers for when times get tough and calls take their toll.

“We have a great group of communications officers here, I would say the best in the state,” she said. “I adore the people I work with.”