UNSUNG HEROES: Dispatchers serve as first line of emergency response

·7 min read

Aug. 15—FLOYD COUNTY — When Amy Popp applied to work at the Floyd County dispatch center in 2007, she didn't expect it to become her career.

"When I applied, I had no idea — I really didn't know what the job entailed," she said. "I didn't know exactly what 911 dispatchers did or were responsible for, so it was just going to be a job. I was just applying for a job."

Almost 15 years later, Popp, 43, remains a dedicated shift supervisor and dispatcher who serves the community in times of emergency. She works long hours coordinating with first responders and guiding people through some of the toughest situations.

"I'm meant to do this — this is my calling," she said. "This is a way I can be of service."

Mercades Bierman said Popp is a "great dispatcher" and describes her as organized and well-versed on policies and procedures. She has "no worries" when Popp is responding to a call.

"I have no worries because of her abilities and how well she does this job and the way she reacts to situations," she said. "She is always asking the right questions, always going the extra mile. She cares about the officers, and officer safety is her No. 1 priority."

Floyd County Sheriff Frank Loop praised Popp's leadership in the dispatch center.

"She's always taking the bull by the horns back there and wanting to make it better, and we encourage that," he said.

The dispatchers work 12-hour shifts that vary from day to day. Some days might involve paperwork and taking simple calls, while others might involve "nonstop" calls and sending out numerous agencies throughout the day, Popp said.

She has to respond to challenging situations ranging from medical emergencies to domestic disturbances. Talking to suicidal people is a precarious situation, she said, and any situation involving children is "beyond difficult," she said.

After encountering tough calls, Popp sometimes has to take a second to "recenter," she said.

"It's hard to describe how hard it is sometimes, but we're very lucky that we have an administration that supports us, and we have a director that supports us, and we all support each other — if you need to take a second, you take a second," she said.

Popp said it is "impossible to not take those things home with you sometimes, to not let them stay in your mind." If the dispatchers face a tough situation, they will talk to each other about it, and she feels lucky to have a supportive, understanding family.

Often, she just has to "put it away" and "decompress" after her shift, she said.

Her family lives in the area, so she is scared of getting a phone call from a family member, she said.

"Thankfully I haven't, but everybody has health issues in their families or things that make you relate to other people, and so for me, cardiac history is a big thing in my family, so when I take those calls for cardiac events or things like that, those hit close to me, even if it's not happening to me," Popp said.

As she tries to calmly guide people through difficult situations, people don't always want to listen or do what she tells them.

"Sometimes people hang up on you 20 times and you call back," she said. "You just have to be a constant, like I'm telling you this, I want you to only talk to me, I don't want you to talk to anyone else, I want you to take a deep breath, can you go to another room. You try to get someone to remove to whatever situation they might be in."

If someone is in a position where they can't safely talk to Popp, she encourages them to not hang up and keep an open line so she knows what's going on. Texting 911 is also helpful in those situations.

"If you can't talk, text me," she said. "If you're in a situation where you have someone in your home and you're hiding, turn the light off on your phone. Don't have your phone illuminated, because it's going to give up your position. Say nothing. It's different in different situations."

If someone is having a mental crisis, Popp tries to relate to them and "build a bond" and "some kind of common ground," she said.

There is a "tremendous" amount of multitasking involved with the job, and when she is guiding callers through a situation, she is also typing and relaying information to first responders at the same time.

"I thought that I was a multitasker when I started, and then I was quickly slapped back into place that I had no idea what multitasking was," Popp said. "Really and truly, you don't think you'll be able to do it, because you don't feel like you're able to do it. It took me a long time before I was like, I'm doing this."

Popp describes herself as a "detail-oriented" person with a"Type A" personality.

"For me, this job just fits right into that category to me, which is a little bit insane, because sometimes it can be very chaotic," she said. "But I enjoy what I do — not some of the things we have to deal with, but I enjoy the basics of my job."

Popp is still nervous each day she walks into the dispatch center, which keeps her on her toes, she said.

"You just fall back on your training and you do the best you can," she said.

She has developed strong connections with the people works with at the dispatch center, including the first responders she talks with on a daily basis. She doesn't feel that she just works with coworkers, saying it's like working with family.

"I think our bonds sometimes may be a little bit different because we work in such a high-stress situation," she said. "Officers, firefighters, they depend on us, and we depend on them, and they have to trust us. I take that very seriously."

She doesn't only worry about the safety of the callers who she speaks with — she also worries about the safety of the responders.

"We have to make sure we're covering all of the basics of safety for them for the responders, for the callers, for everyone," Popp said.

Over the years, she has talked to many of the same people as she responds to callers, including people she first spoke with a decade ago.

"There are people I speak to that I remember speaking to their parents," she said. "There are addresses that they will say that I remember. It's not that we're in a small, small community, but we are in sense, so we have a smaller dispatch center. There are only a few people that would be answering the phone, so typically, we do have people we talk to often."

Sometimes, she talks repeatedly to patients at nursing homes who are in a state of confusion, including those with Alzheimer's.

"For years, we've talked to the same few people over and over — they're confused, they're scared and they'll call," Popp said. "We just try to say, it's OK, it's time to go to bed today, or they'll call and ask what day is it. If we can spend just a few minutes talking to them and making them calm down, for me, that is a way of giving back."

In her time as a dispatcher, Popp once assisted over the phone during the delivery of a baby. She described the situation as "terrifying," but it was a gratifying experience when she learned the mother delivered a healthy baby and the mother was OK.

"You're nervous the entire time and so afraid," she said. "I'm just hoping that everything was OK, there are no complications. We've already started EMS and first responders, so I know that helps on the way and I'm telling them, help is coming, but until they get there, I'm going to tell you what you need to do. Put me on speaker phone, tell me what's happening and I'll walk you through this."