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Woodbury 911 dispatcher dialed in to public safety

Katie Cafferty dispatches calls in Washington County during one of her overnight shifts last week. She's also an on-call firefighter/EMT for Woodbury. Staff photo by Riham Feshir

Katie Cafferty is a multi-tasker.

That, in combination with her paramedic and firefighting experience - and geographical knowledge of Woodbury - gives her an edge as a Washington County 911 dispatcher.

"I have an unfair advantage to this job," the Woodbury resident said. "To sit here and dispatch is second nature to me."

She's delivered a baby over the phone before, she's taken frantic calls from assault victims, those who've found loved ones unresponsive and others who just needed someone to talk to until paramedics arrived.

On her first day answering the 911 line, Cafferty took a call from one of the victims of a tragic speed boat accident that claimed the lives of five men on the St. Croix River about 12 years ago.

"I just wasn't expecting that phone call," she said. "It was gruesome."

The dispatcher followed proper protocol and stayed on the phone with the caller for about 30 minutes until help arrived.

Once she's done with all the steps and questions she's required to ask, she can begin using her EMT knowledge to help callers deal with the emergency.

"You can just start being human with people ... you can just keep a conversation with them," Cafferty said.

Understanding the system

Cafferty has been in public safety for many years. She's worked as a dispatcher since 1999, while also being a part of the on-call firefighter/EMT team in Woodbury.

The tiered system at the dispatcher's office is divided up by area - Cafferty, along with 32 dispatchers communicate with police officers and sheriff's deputies all over the county.

Each 911 call is answered by a dispatcher who then transfers the information to another channel based on its geographical location.

Each dispatcher rotates through two channels per shift. The south channel includes Woodbury, Oakdale, Cottage Grove, Newport and St. Paul Park.

On a Wednesday night last week, Cafferty was assigned to the south channel.

Once a message - highlighted in red - pops on her screen, she immediately dispatches the information to one of the officers on duty.

Based on the address, she locates the nearest available officer. That happened when she saw a domestic call coming in from a townhome in Woodbury.

After dispatching the information, she checked the home's history for more background on the residents. She saw that police were called there for a number of other incidents.

"The sooner I get that information the less (officers) have to ask for," Cafferty said.

And in any potentially dangerous situation, she checks on the officer every three minutes.

"Obviously they're not dealing with the best people," she said, adding, "especially at night when it's dark.

"Until they say that magic word, which is 25," she said of the all-clear code, which means she doesn't need to check back with the cops.

Everything gets logged, everything is time-stamped.

In critical situations, an armed standoff for example, all area officers can be notified with the click of a button.

Otherwise, police officers in neighboring cities may not know or care what's going on in Woodbury, she said.

Staying calm

To callers, it seems like forever until they see an officer or a paramedic at their door.

Not so for dispatchers, who are asking the questions in order to send out the right ambulance and the right people for the job, Cafferty said.

Oftentimes if the caller is hysterical or crying, it makes it hard to gather the information, she said. If she can hear that it's heated, physical or if weapons are involved, she'll take the next steps.

And when it's a medical and the callers are frantic, they don't understand that it's not the dispatcher who's going out to the scene, Cafferty said.

"It's a lot of that repetitive reassurance," she said, later adding, "Once I know the cops are with them, literally in the room with them, then I'll let them go."

When taking medical calls, Cafferty said she tends to think like a medic. However, she's required to go through the Total Response Call Handling Protocol System.

In the time that help is on the way, those answers determine how the ambulance responds to the caller and how medics prep for the situation.

So when the caller is angry or yelling, "that takes time away from the questions that I really need answers to," Cafferty said.

"They just need to believe or trust that when they call that things are done simultaneously," she added.

From serious to humorous

Though most of the time, dispatchers are answering calls from people who need police and medical assistance, not all calls require immediate help.

"We've had people calling asking what temperature they should cook their turkey on Thanksgiving," Cafferty said. "What channel they should watch when it's storming out. People that think they see UFO sightings. And it just goes on."

Last Wednesday at about 10:30 p.m., a caller reported seeing a coyote on Turnberry Alcove in Woodbury, the same area where a bear was once sighted.

Although the caller did not request an officer, Cafferty dispatched the call anyway. It's up to the police to respond as they wish, she said.

Then there are the happy calls.

Cafferty recalled taking a call a few years ago from a man whose wife was in labor.

The family lived in Stillwater, but by the time help arrived, the baby had already been born. Cafferty had walked them through it and everything turned out fine.

"Happy endings are good," she said with a smile. "People are usually calling because they're having the crappiest day, not the best day.

"To be thanked once in a while is nice."

Riham Feshir
Riham Feshir is a reporter and photographer for the Woodbury Bulletin. Her coverage includes Woodbury City Hall, Washington County Board of Commissioners and business news.  Follow Riham on Twitter @RihamFeshir for the latest updates.