Yvette Baxley’s been answering 911 calls for 27 years — heart attacks, shootings, domestic violence, accidents. She knows just what to ask to keep people safe and calm.
It’s all different now.
The script has changed.
Now, she must also protect the first responders against COVID-19.
So she also asks every caller, “Do you have difficulty breathing?”
“Do you have a fever?”
“Do you have a cough?”
Welcome to the life of a 911 dispatcher amidst a pandemic.
If the answer is yes, she warns paramedics, police officers and other first responders that they may be exposed to coronavirus. Officers then suit up with something besides bulletproof vests — gloves and a mask. Firefighters take similar precautions. If they believe the patient or someone in the home is sick, they ask if they can meet outside so they don’t have to enter the home.
Gila County has 10 cases of COVID-19. So far, no Rim Country responders have gotten sick, but other police and fire departments have wound up with a third of the force in quarantine because of unprotected exposure to those infected.
After nearly three decades of helping callers cope with everything from suicide to assaults, accidents and break-ins, Baxley has learned to take it all in stride.
She never imagined this would be her career, though.
“Surprisingly, I just answered an ad in the newspaper. This job became my calling and a career I love,” she said.
Baxley is unique. Many dispatchers do not stay in the field. Because of the high turnover rate, both the GCSO and the Payson Police Department have a standing open position for dispatchers.
But Baxley enjoys “all of it” from answering calls, managing stressful situations, juggling multiple calls and staying on the line until help arrives.
“Anything we can do to make any caller feel a little more secure and comfortable,” said Baxley.
It’s busiest in the day and evening, but that “doesn’t mean the graveyard shift cannot be as busy as well.”
Dispatchers stay on the phone during “in progress calls,” such as a burglary, domestic violence call, serious accident, fire or “anytime a caller requests to stay on the line as long as they are safe… until the first responders arrive.”
This year, the COVID-19 outbreak has added to the dispatcher’s burden.
“We are now asking callers additional questions. This is to try and help keep our first responders aware and safe so they can be prepared when contacting people,” said Baxley.
For their work, law enforcement agencies in April honor dispatchers across the country – an observation sponsored by the Association of Public Safety Communications Officers.
We “can’t thank the dispatchers in Gila County enough for the critical role they play in Public Safety,” wrote Gila County Sheriff Adam Shepherd. They’re “the lifeline for the callers and officers,” who “rarely receive the recognition they deserve.”
A National Institutes of Health study found that dispatchers report more stress from an unsupported work environment and support system than from the calls themselves.
Baxley said Gila County this year “showered” dispatchers with gift certificates, cards, insulated lunch bags, drink tumblers and “many praises.”
“Dispatchers are the voice with hope and are truly the voices behind the scenes,” wrote Shepherd. “Thank you for all the sacrifices you make to create a better and safer world for the public.”