A newsmaker you should know: Low-pressure retirement suits emergency dispatcher

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Wendy McIlvaine of South Greensburg is vacationing on a beach in North Carolina this week -- a well deserved vacation after retiring this month as the longest-serving Westmoreland County 911 dispatcher.

Still, she said, she is a bit surprised by all the publicity surrounding her retirement. Ms. McIlvaine has been asked to do a number of interviews.

But at age 55 and after 27 years helping to get police, firefighters and emergency responders to people involved in accidents, storms and fires, she is learning -- and enjoying -- the art of relaxation.

"The stress goes with the job," she said. "Everybody asks how you deal with it, but you get used to it. You're a basket case when you first start in the job, but you learn to remain calm. That's the most important thing for a dispatcher.

"Being a call taker is the hardest job," she said. That's when a dispatcher gets the initial call from a person in an emergency -- and has to quickly assess the situation and what to do. And the caller is usually very upset.

"Sometimes it's hard to get the person to calm down," she said, "so maybe you repeat what you need them to do. Or you say, 'We can't get you to help the person you're with unless you calm down.' "

Ms. McIlvaine didn't plan on becoming a 911 dispatcher. Her bachelor's degree from Clarion University was in biology and she got a job with Westinghouse, but then was laid off.

It is the weather-related emergencies that stick in her mind -- the 1993 Storm of the Century, for instance, which dumped about 25 inches of snow on the region and included brutal winds. Or when heavy rains cause flooding, or high winds bring down trees and power lines. The storms last for hours and calls just keep on coming all day, from car accidents in the snow or people stranded in flooded vehicles.

She took all kinds of calls and learned to take them in stride.

When asked about some of the funnier calls, she remembered this recent one with a laugh:

"A guy called and said his mother was unconscious and not breathing," she said. "So I told him to get her on the floor face up. At which point he pauses and says, 'Hey, mom, they want you on the floor!' And I could hear her in the background say 'Why?' I said to him, 'Are you talking to your mom?'

"He was screaming and I was all ready to give him CPR instructions," she said. "I really don't know why he called. His mother was talking to him."

The woman was fine.

She also said the day kindergarten children are taught how to dial 911 in school is always a big day at the call center.

"The kids go home and they call us, but they don't know what to say when we answer, or they hang up. So we have to call back and talk to their parents, and tell them not to call except in an emergency."

Some of her most difficult calls were when a person was suicidal.

"We all have our own techniques," she said of the dispatchers. "But we try to talk to them, to talk them through it and get them to stay on the line while we send police and EMS. We go through training for it, too; you just have to try be sympathetic and to understand what they are going through, especially in these financial times, and try to get them to think of their family and friends."

The 911 emergency call center is divided into desks. There are four call takers, two EMS desks, two fire desks and five police desks divided into regions. The dispatchers rotate among the jobs.

She normally worked a 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. shift -- the day shift -- at the county center on Donahoe Road near Greensburg.

"There isn't a lot of time to get bored as a dispatcher, it's not very frequent when you just sit there."

But the kind of calls may vary from one shift to another.

"On the day shift, I would get the calls where people wake up sick," she said. "If you work the night shift, you get more of the people involved in bar fights or domestics," where alcohol often escalates a situation.

On an eight-hour shift, a call taker might get 50 to 100 calls.

"But if there was a tornado or big storm, you'd get hundreds," she noted.

After getting the initial information, she would then transfer the call to one of the other desks, where dispatchers would send EMS, police or fire.

Under the current schedule, dispatchers work two 12-hour days in a row and then have two days off.

Every other weekend, they work three days in a row. So in a two-week period, they work seven days and clock 80 hours.

She really liked that schedule, and said the other dispatchers do, too.

"When you come back from a weekend off, you know you only have to work two days in a row," she said, "so it isn't bad."

Her regular escape from the stress of the job has been a campground near Keystone State Park.

"There's nothing like sitting around a campfire with some friends to relax," she said.

And she really enjoys the Outer Banks in North Carolina, as well, where she is now on vacation, staying with friends.

She has no immediate plans -- except to do exactly what she wants. But she'd also like to travel to Alaska and Hawaii.

neigh_east - neigh_westmoreland

Debra Duncan, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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