LARGO — On the sprawling top floor of the sheriff’s office complex, the lights are dim, the windows shuttered. It’s hard to decipher day from night.
Screens blink wall-to-wall with news broadcasts, weather and emergency updates. When a hot call involving a gun or knife comes in, a siren screams.
And in more than 100 cubicles, operators field pending disasters.
“Deputies are en route to serve a warrant,” a dispatcher tells Brittany Swetson, who has come to start her night shift at the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. “The suspect might be on the premises. But we can’t send backup because we’re down three units.”
“Everything else is fine!” the dispatcher says. “Have a good day!”
Here, a good day means no homicides. No fatal accidents. No shootings.
Good days are few. But some are less bad.
“Here, no one is allowed to say: ‘It’s quiet,’ ” says Swetson, 29, sliding into her swivel chair. “It’s always a jinx.”
She puts her three-ring “bible” of police signals on the desk. Adjusts her headset, where her tiny talisman, Groot, dangles from the earpiece.
Then she logs on, toggling between five monitors, her mission control.
This Monday in August, Swetson and her coworkers in Pinellas County’s 911 Regional Communications Center will field 2,837 emergency calls.
During her 8-hour shift, she will hear about a shooter, prowler, alligators — real and imagined. Trespassers, speeders, shoplifters. So many calls, so many crises, and here — like in emergency call centers across the country — so much need for more dispatchers.
When a caller dials 911, someone in this room picks up. Then that person alerts Swetson, who relays information to deputies on the road.
Her official title is Public Safety Telecommunicator. She calls herself a dispatcher.
Mostly, she’s the middleman.
“So a dog breeder? A fraud call?” Swetson asks as her shift starts at 2:20 p.m. “It’s a mobile home park there, right? Let me get the lot number.”
She helps officers figure out which calls to respond to and in what order. She tells them when back-up might arrive. She runs checks on license plates, scours reports of past calls, radios deputies to make sure they’re safe.
She operates solely in the present, responding to people’s paranoia and panic, sending help to strangers who will never hear her voice.
She hears the starts of hundreds of stories, and almost never the endings.
• • •
To be a dispatcher, Swetson says, you have to be patient. It helps if you enjoy adrenaline. You have to be able to juggle a half-dozen calls at a time, find out what suspect might have a gun and alert officers before someone gets hurt.
And you have to take people at their worst.
“You’re not going to call the sheriff’s office because you’re having a good day,” Swetson says.
Some emergency operators last decades. Others quit after a couple of shifts.
Where Swetson works, there are supposed to be 30 dispatchers, but the department is down three.
It’s a modest gap, but since the pandemic, many 911 call centers have been reporting record retirements, mid-career quittings and openings they’re unable to fill. According to April Heinze of the National Emergency Number Association, a pre-COVID-19 vacancy rate hovering below 20% has jumped to over 30%. Some of Tampa Bay’s other large departments are experiencing glaring staffing shortages.
“A lot of people don’t want to go into buildings for work anymore,” Heinze said. “It’s hard to keep people in this job.”
In Pinellas, the job requires 20 weeks of paid training. Salaries range from about $40,000 to $64,000, plus benefits and a $1,500 signing bonus. Most shifts require nights and weekends.
“It’s very difficult to find someone willing to work the midnight shift,” said Eddy Durkin of the Tampa Police Department. “Especially when every call that comes in is negative.”
Of 105 dispatcher positions, his department has 88, he said. Prospects are in training, and the department is looking to hire more.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has 30 openings for dispatchers and emergency call takers, out of 121 authorized spots.
“A lot of people think you just answer the phone and send out the police,” Durkin said. “But the calls don’t stop coming. One minute someone’s stereo is too loud. The next, someone is shot.”
• • •
3 p.m.: A Toyota pickup is swerving down Park Boulevard. Possible drunken driver. Swetson sends a deputy.
Clearwater Police are chasing a shooter and need the Eagle. “Copy, 51,” Swetson says, sending the helicopter for surveillance.
She speaks in code, citing different numbers for each type of incident, deciphering deputies’ chatter, dispensing encrypted answers.
She’s learned not to get upset about Code 3: hit and run. Or Code 19: overdose. Even Code 34: domestic violence.
But the 8Js really get her: Missing Juveniles.
“Kids are back at school,” her coworker says. “The runaways will start soon.”
• • •
Growing up in tiny Ottawa County, Kansas, Swetson watched her dad head out in uniform for his shifts as an Emergency Medical Technician. Her older brother and younger sister also became EMTs.
Swetson worked at Walmart and Sonic. Went to community college, but couldn’t figure out what she wanted to do.
“All I ever wanted to be was a mom,” says Swetson. “Nothing more. But there’s still plenty of time for that.”
When she was 22, a friend became a deputy and told her their hometown department needed dispatchers. “I didn’t know what that was,” Swetson says. “But I got the application.”
She loved the pace, the variety, knowing she was making a difference, even if it was invisible. She can’t save a shooting victim like her paramedic dad. But she can send a deputy. Connect the dots. Get help.
After working rural Kansas emergencies for six years, Swetson visited a friend in Largo and decided she had to move to Florida. She started working in Pinellas County two years ago, mid-pandemic, and prefers the 2 to 10:30 p.m. shift when something is always happening.
She tries not to think about the strangers’ stories. But some haunt her.
• • •
Half an hour later:
A child services investigator needs a police escort to interview a parent.
A high school student is threatening suicide.
A troop of officers is stopping speeders on Bayside Bridge.
Swetson sends responders, responders, responders, then sips from her pink water bottle and leans back.
All around her, coworkers answer calls. Most last less than a minute, then it’s on to the next emergency.
“Okay, a suspicious subject is in the convenience mart?”
“A female has been stabbed? Does she need a paramedic? Stay on the line.”
“A neighbor is blowing a fog horn at her?” Swetson asks a 911 operator. “I don’t have an available unit. She’ll have to wait for something more annoying.”
“Someone’s trying to poison her? Cheat her out of her rent?” she says. “Maybe she needs mental health help.”
“What? He needs pest control? That’s not an emergency.”
• • •
Some callers are confused, seeing reptiles slithering beneath their beds.
Others are irate: How dare the landlord, the roommate, the cops?
Some requests make her mad — like the man who complained his neighbor’s trailer was blocking the sidewalk. The deputy learned that the neighbor was packing to move.
Or the man who wanted cops to bust four kids fishing at John’s Pass. “That’s not even illegal!”
Tonight, after calling in license plates for 28 more traffic stops and running 63 record checks, Swetson breaks for dinner — potato chips — then surveys the deputies’ log. Another 15 have started shifts in her sector, central Pinellas. Now she can send someone to talk to that woman who claims she’s being harassed by a fog horn.
“Hey, Charlie, are you still 10/4?” she asks, checking on a deputy she hasn’t heard from in a while.
An hour later, her headset finally goes silent. She’s about to scroll through Pinterest when she gets the call she most dreads.
Juvenile female, 13, has been missing from Largo since 11:30 a.m. She’s not allowed to leave home, but took off with her 16-year-old boyfriend. “Runaway,” says the report on her screen. Swetson recognizes the girl’s name.
“If found,” says the 911 report, “contact Grandma.”
Swetson issues an alert to all Tampa Bay law enforcement agencies. Sends out a description of the girl: 5 feet tall, about 100 pounds, last seen wearing blue sweatpants.
“How bad is her home life that she has to keep running away?” Swetson worries out loud, shaking her head. “Or is it really bad at all? I think about that all the time.”
• • •
7:45 p.m.: A man wants a deputy to check on his neighbor’s barking dog.
A man having marital problems might have overdosed on meth.
Someone in a Seminole park found an alligator whose jaw had been taped shut.
“Complainant advises that she’s heard five gunshots outside her trailer,” Swetson tells a deputy driving near 150th Avenue N.
“I’m in the area,” he says. “It sounds like fireworks. Tell her she doesn’t need to be hiding in her bathroom.”
An expired license. A suspicious person. Trespassing at a Circle K.
“An argument at a bus stop? The kid said he was going to get his uncle’s gun and shoot his classmates?” Swetson says. “They’re in middle school?”
A man wants to shoot a coyote with a 12-gauge shotgun. “I’m not sure he can even do that,” she tells her coworker.
Should she send cops to deal with the trespassers? Or divert a unit to check out a suspicious vehicle that might have been part of a hit and run?
The man mad about his neighbor’s moving truck calls back. She decides not to send another officer to meet him.
After answering 168 calls, her shift is over. “So what I’ve got going on for you, a female trespasser is being taken to jail. And 34 is still on a domestic in progress,” she tells the dispatcher who comes to relieve her. “Another unit should be available soon.
“And there’s still no word on a juvenile runaway.”
• • •
At home after work, Swetson turns on the TV. On her days off, she immerses herself in “Forensic Files,” “Snapped,” and Oxygen’s new “911 Crisis Center.”
But after almost nine hours of fielding emergencies, she needs to escape.
She switches on “Parks and Rec,” but can’t lose herself in the laughs.
She keeps thinking about that 13-year-old girl, wondering if she’s safe.
Sometimes, she thinks, it’s better if you never find out.