By Jeffrey Vilk, Guest Writer
Reflection is the act of pondering, thinking or meditating. It’s not something I do a lot because I feel like I don’t have time to, or I frivolously believe that I’m too young to be in the “reflection” part of my life.
However, due to Telecommunicator’s Week and the fact I’ll have been at this whole thing for 15 years come September, maybe it’s time for some pondering.
When I think about my time as a dispatcher and try to define how it came to be, the only phrase that comes to mind is “a simple twist of fate.” I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. In high school, I trained to be a journalist and got hired right out of college as a reporter. Things were falling into place the way they should have. Two years in, everything collapsed. The job ended abruptly and without notice. I was newly married and had to come to grips with the fact that I had trained for five years for this, and it was gone. Now what was I going to do for the rest of my life?
My mind raced to every available option. I was working at a movie theater full time, but I felt I couldn’t do that the rest of my life. I always wanted to be a K-9 officer, why not try that? I’ll be a police officer, what did I have to lose? As I walked down the police officer hiring path, an opportunity to apply as a radio dispatcher for a college police department came up.
I didn’t know there was even a person who called themselves a dispatcher. What did a dispatcher do anyway? I had gone my entire childhood and teenage years never thinking twice about how police officers and ambulances got to where they were going. Or who the person was that answered the phone when you called 911. Did the phone ring into some cubicle in a tiny office? How many of us actually knew? You called the police or an ambulance and they just arrived.
Even though I wasn’t sure what a dispatcher did, I justified applying as a great way to get my foot in the door to be a police officer. I went several months without hearing anything and eventually forgot about it. Then one day seemingly out of the blue, I got a call.
“Are you still interested in the dispatcher job?” they asked. I responded that I was. Little did I know that this simple twist of fate would change my life forever.
After about a year with my first agency, I moved on. My next assignment was for a center in the suburbs. Admittedly, I might’ve come into this new role feeling overconfident. I had worked at a police department for a large city college. How different could it be?
I was very naïve, and for the next 2 years at my new department, this naivete showed. Very early on, it seems like I’d be in my boss’s office every other week getting reprimanded for something I didn’t do, should’ve or could’ve done. I felt like a snowball rolling down an ice-covered hill, with nothing to stop my descent. It was like my job at the newspaper all over again. I was going to come in one day and my boss was going to say to me, “Thanks but no thanks, kid. This job is just not for you.”
I was in such despair. If that happened, what was I going to do then? Why couldn’t I do anything right? During this difficult time, I never considered why I was still doing this job, I was just fighting to keep the job. It was certainly a rough patch and even embarrassing at times. Thankfully, though, my bosses stuck with me and got me extra training. In hindsight, that experience made me a better dispatcher and taught me the meaning of the adage, “Life is not about how many times you fall down, it’s about how many times you get up.”
I’m so glad I stuck with it, even at its most challenging. For me, over a decade since my downhill fall, I’ve helped save people who have overdosed. I’ve given CPR instructions to a mother who, on Mother’s Day, found her toddler face down in a backyard pond, giving her a couple extra hours with him before God called him home. I’ve been the calm voice on the other end during callers’ worst days. I’ve made a lot of friends in dispatch centers around the region and within our police department, and I’ve become part of a Blue Family that is highly respected. I’ve also combined my love for writing with a profession I’ve come to love by writing things here and there, and even won a couple awards along the way. In the end, I found out I was cut out to be a dispatcher, it just took some time to realize it.
This is my story. What is yours? During this week, take time to reflect on your journey. How did you get from where you were to where you are? Why did you start? Is this just a job to you or a profession? Do you still feel the same about the profession as you did when you started? Is it a better feeling or a worse feeling? Why is that? There is a big push — as there should be — by the industry and The Healthy Dispatcher to focus on mental health. Make no mistake, taking stock — reflecting — is part of that.