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On the call: Dispatchers honored during National Telecommunicators Week

This week is National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week — also known as National Dispatchers Week — a time to recognize and thank telecommunications personnel in the public safety communications field.

In a ceremony Monday at the Hilo police station, which was attended by Police Chief Paul K. Ferreira and command staff, Mayor Mitch Roth presented a proclamation to the department recognizing dispatchers for their hard work.

“It’s not an easy job,” said Ferreira. “Our dispatchers are very committed to public safety and are able to calmly work in a fast-paced high-stress environment, providing emergency response to our residents while dispatching first responders to provide assistance.”

On any given day, dispatchers receive an average of 515 calls to 911, averaging 15,694 calls a month to 911 last year. In 2020, Hawaii Police Department dispatchers handled 188,329 calls to 911.

Lt. Robert Fujitake of the Hawaii Police Department’s Communications Section described the county’s police, fire and medical dispatchers who take the emergency 911 calls as “the first first responders.”

“Many of the calls come in where it’s just the worst day of someone’s life, or for their friend or their family member that they’re calling for. So they’re not calling with good news,” Fujitake told the Tribune-Herald last week. “And when the dispatchers take these calls, they have no idea what’s coming in with the 911 call. Yet, they’re prepared. They’re prepared for any situation. They’re making split-second decisions that are helping our community.”

Karen Bugado, who has served in the Hawaii Fire Department’s dispatch center for 22 years — the past seven as a supervisor — pointed out that, in addition to fires, fire dispatchers handle emergency medical, rescue and HAZMAT calls.

“You really need to be able to be calm,” said Bugado. “You deal with a lot of situations, crisis situations. And on the fire side, since we do medical, life and death situations, you really need to be calm … and follow your protocols. You need to be able to adapt and change, because things are going to happen so quickly. There may be, like, no calls going on, then all of a sudden, calls everywhere. I think, inside of yourself, you have to really want to do this and really want to serve your community, too.”

Bugado, a Hilo native who graduated from St. Joseph High School, is part of a family of first responders. One brother, Paul, is a retired police lieutenant, while another brother, Steve, is an officer serving at the main Hilo police station’s receiving desk and cellblock. Deputy Chief Kenneth Bugado, the department’s second-in-command, is her cousin.

Golden Lawrence was honored with the Hawaii Police Department’s first Dispatcher of the Year award for 2020. Lawrence, a 34-year-old married father of three, is an Oahu native who has a pre-law degree from Eastern Washington University. A dispatcher for four years, he, like Bugado, was hired after responding to a newspaper ad — in his case, shortly after moving to Hawaii Island.

Asked what makes a good dispatcher, he replied, “Being a good listener.”

“You’re listening to callers to see what they need and providing a service to them. Being a good listener really helps,” Lawrence said. “I just try to get all the information I can on what’s going on — really, you’re getting just one side of the story, but trying to stay neutral to get all the info you can — weapons, intoxication, who’s involved, everything we can get to give to the officers, so they have the best information going in to that situation.”

For both police and fire dispatchers, training is vital.

“All of our dispatchers are certified in a national program called Emergency Medical Dispatch,” Bugado said. “So through the EMD, there’s an algorithm of questions that we follow, based on what the nature of the medical issue is. So we have really detailed protocols to follow.”

According to Bugado, dispatchers know the protocol to follow when fire medics have to perform CPR or deliver a baby.

“Then, there’s the structure fire calls that have those multiple unit responses,” she said. “There’s the property involved, but there’s also taking into consideration if there is someone in the residence or possibilities of injuries.

“The safety issue is really important.”

Both Bugado and Lawrence said they love their jobs, although it does involve rotating shift work.

“I would not get up at 2 in the morning, or at 6:45 or at 11:45 to take on whatever it is the day throws at us,” Lawrence said, if he didn’t love the work. “It’s an emotional roller coaster.”

“I need that strong support from my family that I get,” he added. “And it’s hard not getting to see your kids on a regular basis. You’re seeing them a couple of hours in the morning or at night before you come into work, expecting that you’re going to work eight hours, but sometimes working 12 hours. So it’s hard to make plans with your family when you do this kind of shift work.

“But on the flip side, you’re helping people. I get a lot of satisfaction knowing that I was a part of helping somebody’s day get better by sending them help.”

Added Bugado, “I don’t think anyone grows up saying ‘I want to be the dispatcher,’ right? It’s ‘I want to be the fireman or the police officer.’

“But when you do it for a few years, you realize how really important the position is.”

Both dispatchers said they feel a connection with the officers, firefighters and medics on the other end of the call.

“You get to talk to the officers on the phone. Because, as a dispatcher, you’re there from the beginning, the onset, and sometimes you don’t know how it ends,” Lawrence explained. “So any time you can talk to an officer, whether it be on the phone or in passing, it’s nice to get that camaraderie and know how things went at the end of a call. It’s also nice to put faces with names you just hear on the radio.”

“I think there’s a really big connection, and it’s really nice,” said Bugado. “I’m sure on the police side, and here on the fire side, everybody works together as a team to get what we need done.”

Fujitake described dispatchers as “the unsung heroes.”

“They’re not out there in the public’s eye. They’re not seen,”
he concluded. “They may have taken over 100 calls in a shift. And, a lot of times, they don’t know the outcome of many of these calls.

“They don’t get the closure.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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