In the dispatch room at the Vanderbilt University Police Department, Leslie Sims sits at her desk, answering a constant barrage of phone and radio calls. At any given time, two to three others in the room also take on many of the same tasks in order to manage the campus’ security needs.
The duties of VUPD dispatch officers are to answer calls from students, faculty, staff and guests on Vanderbilt’s campus and to help provide the proper response, whether it’s sending over a police officer or an ambulance. The job requires them to know the police codes in order to turn this information into action quickly.
Leslie Sims began to think about joining the police in some regards when she was in middle school. At the time, the first season of CSI had begun, which started a craze of crime shows to follow. Sims fell in love with crime prevention and went on to major in criminal justice at the University of Tennessee to pursue a job in policing.
After college, she started to work out of Vanderbilt’s 100 Oaks campus and came over to the university’s main campus under the recommendation of Lieutenant Larry Reese. That transition led to her current position, where she works in the communications office. Her roles keep her busy, an aspect of the job that she noted isn’t shown on crime television shows or in movies.
“We are extremely busy,” she said. “Call volume wise, I might answer the phone 100 times on Monday, and you’ve got radios and officers yelling at you.”
Each of the four desks in the dispatch room contains eight monitors, which each hold unique data, including call logs and live footage from around 1600 cameras all over campus. In the front of the room, seven televisions list out campus events, show the alarm center, provide a rotation through cameras on campus and display the current weather radar. The dispatch officers rotate through different positions at any given time, ranging from cameras and phone calls to radio dispatch.
“You have to be a multitasker to be in communications,” she said.
Working in dispatch
Dispatch is most often the first line of interaction between an individual and the police. When people call to report a problem, they initially speak to somebody in this office, which makes the job especially important.
“We’re the first line of communication, whether students call us or an outsider calls us,” she said. “So we’re kind of the ones that set the bar of what our department does to try to help people.”
During each conversation, dispatch officers ask the caller for crucial details such as name, location and contact information so that officers can provide them with the appropriate assistance, Sims said. Without any of these, it can be difficult to get help out to somebody in need.
“Depending on what’s going on, we try to get as much information as possible from a caller,” she said. “Sometimes the caller doesn’t have the information or a lot of what’s going on. But the more we can gather, the more the officers know going into that call.”
While it is necessary to gather the proper information for getting an officer to a person in a specific location, it is equally as important to help the officer know what to expect, Sims said
“As dispatch, we’re not only looking out for the general public, we are responsible for the safety of our officers,” she said. “So say if the individual has a knife or a gun, we need to know that information so we can relay that to the officers…because their thought process is they have to get into that mode of ‘Okay, this is what I’m going into.’”
Once dispatch collects everything they need to know, they will reach out to an officer who covers the specific zone that they are assigned to. Each dispatcher knows all the zones and the people assigned to those regions, according to Sims. However, if needed, officers can handle calls outside of their areas if others are busy or if the situation is urgently in need of their assistance.
At times, call traffic may overwhelm the police force, causing callers to have to wait an extra few minutes to receive help. Sims understands that this time can create added anxiety to an already tense moment. Therefore, dispatch officers will remain on the line until an officer arrives to the scene.
“It might be two minutes, it might be five minutes, but we will stay with that person on the phone if they say ‘I don’t feel safe’ or ‘Something’s happening,’” Sims said.
This type of commitment to others has helped the department succeed, Sims said. She has seen how some callers may not be as trusting with the police as others due to a variety of factors. However, the dispatch officers’ training, including on how different people perceive policing, and ability to provide quality assistance makes a significant difference.
“From the couple of reactions I’ve had, once we get an officer to them or once we assist them, it’s almost like they kind of change their outlook on things sometimes with us,” Sims said. “Our police department strives for that community-oriented policing, and we try really hard to put anybody on campus first, whether that’s our students, faculty or guests on our campus.”
Emotions on the job
Because of the pressure of having to arrange care for those who may be in unrest, working in dispatch isn’t for everyone, Sims said.
“You have to be a very good people person and want to have to help people to do our job because we talk to people on their worst day,” she said. “You get the people who are having a bad day.”
Whether somebody has lost their keys and can’t get into their car or they have just recently lost a close relative, dispatch hears it all. Officers in this department hear a wide range of emotions on any given day, which can make the job difficult to handle at times, according to Sims.
Some calls can leave an effect on those in dispatch, sometimes for a while. One in particular stands out to Sims. A call came in from a daycare facility that Vanderbilt covers, reporting that a two-year-old child had stopped breathing due to an allergic reaction. It struck her particularly hard because she had her own two year old in mind throughout the call.
“The way I was able to get through was I just sat back and thought ‘If I were the parent, what would I want the police or the communications officer, whoever, to do,’” she said. “And when I took that call, I think it kind of solidified that this is where I want to be, this is what I want to do.”
After these tough moments, Sims explained that those working in dispatch understand that they should step away for a moment and decompress before getting back on duty. Each afternoon, they will take some time to talk about their days along with the supervisor.
“You learn how to adapt and take those emotions and put them away,” she said. “The next day, here’s a whole new set because everyday is different in here. We don’t have the same routine everyday.”