LAKEWOOD, Colo. (KDVR) — Bouquets of blooming flowers and messages of support line the counter at Jeffcom 911, the dispatch center that handled last Monday’s radio traffic during a deadly officer-involved shooting in Arvada.
“It’s a hardship. This is a tragic event. We’ve lost a fellow officer. A family member,” said Jeff Streeter, the executive director at Jeffcom 911.
The flowers, many from other dispatch agencies in the Denver Metro, provide some comfort for those who first heard the calls for help and dispatched emergency crews to the scene.
“Those are small sentiments. There’s people out there that care. They just care,” said Streeter. “We’re all one family. That’s what makes it hard. People do this job, whether it’s dispatch, police, fire, it’s a calling. It’s a profession. It’s not a take it lightly approach.”
What training was like for 911 call-taker recruits
As the tragic events were unfolding last Monday, 10 call-taker recruits were receiving one of their final days of classroom training, learning how to take 911 calls.
While they were not yet working in the official call center where the tragic radio traffic was being handled, they told the Problem Solvers they still witnessed how tight-knit the dispatch and call-taking community can be.
“More than anything, it just gave me such a deep respect for the people that work here, the officers that were out on duty, and it’s just an honor to be a part of the organization,” said Nancy Burckhalter, a trainee who is halfway through 15 weeks of intense training.
“There is such a unity and such a tight bond with them as a family that I’m proud to be coming a part of that,” said Vicki Haiges, another trainee.
Caroline Davis, a trainee who told the Problem Solvers she had been on campus at Virginia Tech during the mass shooting in 2007, said learning of the shooting caused a lot of feelings to bubble up inside of her.
“For me, it was almost a recall – in a good way – because it showed how a team can come together so quickly,” she said. “It was very difficult. Very difficult. Even as a trainee, it was difficult. But it was so wonderful to see how everyone came together and it just made it happen. (They) did their job, supported each other, and then went above and beyond.”
Mental health training for call takers
Bess Joyce, the training manager at Jeffcom 911, said she is working on a plan to make mental health training a more consistent part of call takers’ and dispatchers’ job duties.
“I think it’s something that can often be lost in training because we teach them skills, we teach them how to answer the phones, we teach them geography. But weeks like this, how do you manage your emotions? How do you manage your mental health when it does come back and hit you in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep?” she said.
Joyce said resiliency and mindfulness programs seem to be a “lost art” for all first responders, so she is dedicated to making sure peer support is always available.
“We have a chaplain. We have (Employee Assistance Programs). We have counselors that come here and talk to people. But how to incorporate that into an academy, I think, is the biggest missing piece,” she said.
Joyce said she would like training like this to be mandatory and incentivized when people participate.
“If you take one piece of information from it that helps you on your worst day, we’ve done a good job. So, I’m trying to figure out how to make it required but not make it sound as scary as ‘mandatory.’ Here, I would like to incorporate more training specific to mindfulness, specific to resiliency, specific to critical incident stress,” she said. “You know, what to expect after a shooting, what to expect even with your body when you get a hot call. I don’t think people understand that sometimes that is a physical reaction that your body has.”
Joyce said she would like to bring the mental health services to her employees on a more regular basis rather than putting the obligation on an employee to seek out assistance and support.
“I think there is still a stigma amongst first responders of, ‘It’s not okay to ask for help,'” she said. “I’ve had personal experience with people who didn’t ask for help and are no longer in the profession and have lost families and jobs and everything because they didn’t ask for help. So, kind of my mission when I took that up was, ‘Okay. If you don’t want to ask for help, I’ll bring the help to you.'”
Trainees move forward
One trainee, who preferred to keep his name private, described the Arvada shooting as “very heavy,” but said he could feel the support from his teammates.
“We’re all a family though, and we’re all supporting one another even if we specifically weren’t up there taking calls on the floor, or people off duty, we all still feel it, and it’s tough, but it happens, and we’ve got to learn and get through it.”
“You just don’t know when it’s going to happen,” said Lynelle Turner. “You just have to take it as it comes and use the tools that you’ve been given to get through it.”