As a Communications Operator for the Jefferson City Police Department (JCPD), Heather Reven, 28, handles life and death emergency situations on a daily basis. Civilian employees, Reven and the other operators in the JCPD’s 911 Center, answer all 911 calls and dispatch for the JCPD, the Cole County Sheriff ’s Department, the Jefferson City Fire Department, Animal Protection and Control Division and Public Works. In 2013, there were almost 109,000 service calls that came into the call center. It’s not easy to be employed as a Communications Operator, but Reven went the distance in a lengthy hiring process and has been on the job now for almost three years. As a lifeline to officers in the field, Reven plays an important role in law enforcement and has a direct impact on the lives of people in the community.
What made you decide on this job?
Heather Reven: I had worked at a bank in Springfield but wanted to be closer to my family who live in Eldon. So I returned to Jefferson City and worked in tax collection for the Department of Revenue in Jefferson City, but I couldn’t see myself doing that job for very long. I didn’t hate it but when I woke up each day I did try to think of reasons not to go in. I saw the advertisement for the communications operator in the newspaper and was interested, but thought there was no way they would hire someone without a college degree (the job requirements call for a high school diploma or GED). I did apply and I got a call for an interview. But that was only the beginning. There are a lot of hoops to jump through to get the job.
What kind of hoops did you have to go through to land the job?
HF: I sat in a room with six different people during my interview; they all stared at me and asked questions. The captain was also in the room and that was intimidating. I had to take a typing test and and a written test with pages and pages of questions about my personal history. There’s also a physical, a psychological exam, a background investigation, a drug test and I had to take a polygraph. I remember my supervisor told me that he’d never seen someone so honest on the polygraph. Then you have to go before the city council and every member has to approve you. It took about six months for the whole hiring process and it was very stressful and it did bring me to tears. After I was hired I then did six months of training, including 40 hours on the Missouri Uniform Law Enforcement System.
What were your first days on the job like?
HF: During the first phase of training you’re with a CTO (Communications Training Operator). I remember one call from an officer on a routine traffic stop who had asked for backup. Then I tried reaching him on his radio and couldn’t hear him. I kept trying to get him to answer and all of a sudden I hear a citizen screaming for help on the officer’s radio. The CTO pushed me out of the way to handle the call. Later we found out the officer was on the ground fighting the driver of the vehicle he had stopped. A concerned passerby and her son stopped to help out the officer. That was the longest moment of silence though waiting to hear something on his radio.
What is it like when you’re on your own?
HF: We work 10-hour shifts. There are six lines for cell phones and three for landlines. The phone calls come in all day. Some of the calls are general or non-emergency, but others are emergencies. There’s usually three operators on in the call center and supervisors, too. We also have one dispatcher for JCPD and another for the county and another for the fire department. One console handles radio traffic and we’re constantly talking back-n-forth with the officers on duty. Sometimes we have anywhere from 7 to 30 officers signed on and they tell us everything they do, a few nights ago one police officer was in a high-speed pursuit chase.
How do you handle the calls?
HF: The first thing I want to know is the caller’s location. I also want to know if there are weapons and guns involved in their situation. We have to be compassionate but also detach to get our job done. We have to keep our composure because what we do affects the police officers on the other end of the line. The safety of our officers is a number one priority. I haven’t been here long enough to experience every kind of call there is and I fear when they do come in but I believe that I have the experience and training to handle whatever type of call comes into the call center.
What type of personality can do this job?
HF: Most of us here are laid back. You have to be able to manage a high level of stress and be able to multitask and still function to keep everything flowing. You can’t walk away and say I need a break as what you do affects the other operators. There are days where you can hardly find time to go to the restroom.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
HF: There is no room for error or for mistakes because it impacts peoples’ lives. That is stressful. Some of the calls are really heart pounding ones, too. A child called 911 and I stayed on the line while her mommy was being abused. It can seem like hours to listen a child cry for help and you try your hardest to comfort them. You ask them if their daddy has a gun or a knife. Sometimes I have told the child to go under the bed and keep talking to me. We usually don’t know the outcome of the calls that come into us. You never know what is going on out there and sometimes you create this picture in your mind and that can be hard, too. It’s also hard to have a normal family life as the call center never closes.
How does the job affect your family life?
HF: One of the biggest sacrifices is you don’t get to spend holidays with your family. Some co-workers will try and work with your schedule and sometimes we can trade shifts, but if you don’t have seniority that can be difficult. My fiancé (Matthew Smart) is a fireman in Jefferson City so he has just as crazy a schedule as I do. And my aunt is a firewoman in Eldon. It’s hard for our families to plan something when we can all be there, but they’re willing to work around our schedules. Somebody has to be there to do this job and I don’t mind being that person. I love the job and what we do is important. But I do have advice for 911 callers.
What advice do you have for people calling 911?
HF: Don’t be afraid to call 911 but don’t abuse it. We receive calls from people who are upset that their neighbor’s dog is barking and those calls should go to the non emergency line. 911 is for emergencies. My advice to 911 callers is to always be alert of your surroundings. If you have a blowout or accident how can we help you if we don’t know where you are? It’s nerve wracking when someone says I’m on (Highway) 54 but they don’t know where exactly they are stranded. I can spend a lot of time tracking down where they are because we need a legitimate reason to contact the phone company to have them ping the caller’s phone to find out where he or she is located. It’s also important to speak clearly. It’s hard to ask someone to remain calm in a stressful situation but the calmer they are and the more information they have will reduce the amount of time to get them the help they need.
How do you let go of the stress of the job?
HF: Since my fiancé and I are in the same kind of work, I can vent to him. So that helps. But I try to leave it all at work. We live on a farm in Tebbetts and I have a lot of pets, a funny farm really with horses, goats, rabbits, chickens, ducks, dogs and cats at our farm. I work in the yard a lot when I’m home and I hang out with family and friends. I like to go to the river.
What’s the most rewarding part of the job?
HF: The best part of the job is that we are the first responders. We are the lifeline and we can have a major impact on the person calling 911. It’s extremely rewarding to know that I helped save that person’s life. Our jobs often go unnoticed but a lot of times the callers remember who they talked to first, who was there to help them. I still love my job the same as I did when I first began here.