Kellen Scott is a senior telecommunicator at the Clearwater Police Department, dispatching officers in response to calls on vehicle accidents, domestic abuse, drunks, “a whole gamut of things,’' he says.
A former middle school math teacher who says he wanted a change that still allowed him to help the community, Scott, 36, finds the job exciting.
“Every single call is different. You never know what’s going to happen when you pick up that phone.’'
Scott talked with the Tampa Bay Times about his gratifying and important job.
When you’re sending police on a call, is it suspenseful?
Yes, every single time. We’re concerned about the citizen. We’re concerned about the officers. Especially for suicidal callers. They’re calling us at a terrible time in their life and they just want some help, and we have to keep them on the phone and talking until the officers get there. So we have to run through our gamut of questions for officer safety. We have to figure out where they’re located, and we just want to keep them talking as much as possible so that we can get them help they need.
What questions do you ask for officer safety?
We want to make sure the officer is going to know what they’re going into, so we ask people if they have any weapons, if anybody at the location is intoxicated — drinking or doing any drugs — and if anybody has any mental or health issues.
How do you keep the suicidal callers talking?
I start with their name first, just to kind of get that rapport going. I usually like to ask them about their hobbies, find something that they like and then they’ll just talk about — there was one gentleman who was into art and painting, and once I got my other questions answered, he started talking about painting for a good 10 minutes… and was just completely involved in that and wasn’t even thinking about his problem anymore. So that was a good one. I was able to find something that he was really attached to and was able to (keep him) on the phone with me.
Have you ever had to dispatch help during a police shootout?
I haven’t been completely involved in one of those. I was here the night of that Christmas Day (2018) shooting. (A man fired multiple shots at police, who returned fire and killed him.) We all listen to the radio even if we’re not the actual dispatcher, and hearing the words “shots fired’' over the radio, I mean the whole tone of the room changes. But everyone goes into kind of an automatic, we- know-what-to-do mode. This person does this. This person makes this call out. Everyone just works together as a team. It’s nice and fluid. Heart’s still racing, you got that adrenaline pumping, but we do this day in and day out and just – it’s almost like autopilot sometimes.
How often do people call 911 for issues that aren’t emergencies?
It does happen pretty often. If it is something that is a police issue, we’ll go ahead and still kind of handle it as we normally would, and at the end of the call we’ll just kind of educate them, like, “Hey, this is not an emergency. We do have a non-emergency line that you can call in the future.’'... We still kind of use that customer service aspect and get their problem solved. …
There are people that will call back, usually if they’re upset with the original outcome. And we’ll just kind of keep trying to educate them. Sometimes an officer will go visit and give them some education that way as well.
What are people asking on those calls?
People will call and ask about their power being out. Or, what time the fireworks are happening. Things that they could call the non-emergency number for and get the same answer.
Do you get crazy requests, perhaps people asking for a ride somewhere?
Yeah, they want to get rides. One that’s always stuck out for me is this one guy had to do his laundry and there was a cat on his stairs, and he wanted us to come move the cat off the stairs. … He probably had a phobia of them and didn’t want to even attempt anything to try to get it to move on its way.
What did you tell him?
I just gave him a couple of suggestions. Maybe make some loud noises, maybe toss something in its general area to get it to move on. … He did not call back. He was able to take care of that himself.
What kind of training do the telecommunicators undergo?
Here we have three phases of training. There’s three different positions. We have call-taking, which is the answering of the emergency and non-emergency lines. We have an information position, which is where we run warrants and check people’s registration and work with the officers. We also talk to other agencies. And the final phase is dispatch, where you’re actually on the police radio kind of organizing where the officers go. The whole training process takes about six to twelve months, depending on the person. You’re with the trainer and they sit with you one-on-one and walk you through all the scenarios. There’s different training classes throughout the department on different things. It’s an involved process.
What kind of person does it take to do this kind of work?
It definitely has to be someone that cares about people. They want to help. They need to be a multi-tasker. In some positions we have six computer monitors in front of us and we have to look at all six of them simultaneously. You definitely have to have kind of a strong backbone. Callers are having the worst day of their life and they might curse us out. ... We just have to know they’re having a terrible time and it’s not directed at us. We’re here to help them, and we just have to do our job and get them help as efficiently as possible.
Is this a gratifying job?
It’s extremely gratifying. Lots of times we do go call to call to call, so we don’t always get to find out the outcome. But the ones that we do, it is phenomenal to know that you’ve helped that person and helped him get back on a good track.