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911 dispatchers: Doing a job that makes a difference

MPD seeking applicants for 15 vacant positions

Maui Police Department dispatch supervisor Susie Egdamin strains to understand a caller with a thick accent as she nears the end of a long shift last month. The department is seeking applicants for 15 vacant dispatcher positions. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

WAILUKU — When a 911 caller reported a pregnant woman was going into labor at home in Lahaina last year, emergency services dispatchers talked the woman and her boyfriend through the delivery.

“Her contractions were already too close” to make it to the hospital, recalled emergency services dispatcher Kanoe Agcaoili, who was guiding a dispatcher-in-training to handle the call.

“We went through medical protocols to give them instructions,” said Agcaoili, who at the time was pregnant herself. “The baby was out before the medics got there.”

For 911 dispatchers, who often come in contact with people on their worst days, the successful birth was a reminder of how their behind-the-scenes jobs make a difference in people’s lives.

“They say we’re first responders, but we rarely have the chance to do something like that,” Agcaoili said. “It was exciting. It felt good.”

Maui Police Department dispatchers take afternoon calls last month. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Lately, Agcaoili and other dispatchers have been working longer hours, as the Maui Police Department works on recruiting applicants to fill 15 vacant dispatcher positions.

Of the 39 allotted dispatcher positions, 19 are filled by full-time dispatchers. Two other employees are in training and three potential hires are going through the interview process, said Davlynn Racadio, administrative dispatch supervisor.

In the meantime, employees are staying at work longer to keep the dispatch center running.

“A lot of them are working 12- to 16-hour shifts,” Racadio said. “Of course, it’s hard. Most of the time, they don’t complain. They’re there to help the public.”

Except for Molokai, which is fully staffed with five dispatchers, dispatch centers throughout the state have had trouble filling positions, Racadio said.

Along with having typing skills and familiarity with locations in Maui County, dispatchers need to be good at multitasking and communicating, Racadio said. “They have to paint a picture for the responding officers so they know what to expect,” she said.

Employees undergo almost a year of training, including time working with an experienced dispatcher, before handling and dispatching emergency calls on their own.

“When we finally get them in, some of them really enjoy it,” Racadio said. “It’s a great job. We do have some challenges.”

At any given time, up to eight employees staff the dispatch center at the Wailuku Police Station.

While some dispatch police officers, firefighters, medics and other emergency workers to scenes, other employees work as call-takers who answer phone calls and relay information to dispatchers.

Dispatchers are certified as first responders who are called on at times to help people begin cardiopulmonary resuscitation to try to revive someone.

Sometimes, a dispatcher will stay on the phone with a caller until emergency workers arrive. “You just have to assure them that you’re there,” said Kehau Filimoeatu, who has 25 years’ experience as an emergency services dispatcher and is an on-duty supervisor.

“It’s getting more and more technical,” she said. “When I first started, we didn’t have any computers. But we also didn’t have the population and you knew everybody. On Molokai, a lot of dispatching was telling people to go to so-and-so’s house.”

These days, Filimoeatu estimates that a majority of the calls fielded by dispatchers help tourists, including hikers who get lost and visitors who may mistake a turtle for a shark from their hotel balconies.

On average each month, the number of 911 calls to the dispatch center is 10,000, with another 12,000 administrative calls, Racadio said.

In February, the calls included 4,215 police cases, including ones on Lanai and Molokai; 1,330 fire calls and 1,512 medic calls.

About 80 percent of calls are answered within 1 to 10 seconds, Racadio said.

Filimoeatu said Maui County is unique in having the only 911 dispatch center with jurisdiction over noncontiguous land covering Maui, Molokai, Lanai and Kahoolawe. Unlike most other dispatch centers in the state, the Wailuku center does the dispatching for not just police but also firefighters, medics, the U.S. Coast Guard and county lifeguards.

“It’s a daunting task,” Filimoeatu said. “That’s one of the reasons we’re paid a little bit more than the rest of the counties.”

According to the Maui County website, dispatcher salaries begin at $3,088 a month.

But with the employee shortage, dispatchers are earning more as they work longer hours.

“It’s different every day. It never gets boring,” said Agcaoili, who has worked as a dispatcher for eight years.

Before applying for the job, she was working as a clerk at the hospital emergency room and would hear dispatchers talking to medics on the radio. “That’s what got me interested,” she said.

In addition to multitasking, dispatchers have to be good listeners, she said.

“You need the feeling that you want to help somebody,” Agcaoili said. “If you don’t want to help people in their worst times, it’s not the right place.”

Selina Agunoy, who has worked as a dispatcher for five years, said the job requires “a lot of compassion.”

“Every day you hear someone’s worst nightmare,” Agunoy said. “So you want to be able to help them get past that.

“If you don’t want to help them, you can tell. Sometimes they say we’re sassy. It’s just we need that information. A lot of times people’s lives are at risk — not just the person there. It’s our officers, our medics, our firefighters.”

Agunoy, who has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, has contact with police officers and other emergency services workers through her job.

One difficult part of the job is not knowing what happens after directing police officers and others to the scene of an emergency.

“We don’t ever get to see anybody,” Agunoy said. “We’re always the last to know the outcome of any call. Sometimes it’s hard ’cause we don’t know.”

Other times, “when you can help someone over the telephone, it’s such a good relief,” said Tori Adolpho, who has worked as a dispatcher for seven years after 20 years in the tourist industry.

“There are times you can give it all you got, but the outcome is not good,” she said. “Those are things we got to learn to let go. It’s not easy. You try your best, sometimes it just doesn’t work out.”

“The angst for us here is oftentimes we don’t have closure,” Filimoeatu said. “You don’t know what happened. You have to be tolerant, patient and able to get over it or let it go.

“It can be rewarding, in that you are able to serve your community and make a difference — sometimes in the least ways that you realize. Sometimes just waiting on the line with somebody.”

She said a few people call to say thank you. “Sometimes people drop off food for us,” Filimoeatu said. “Or they will say, ‘Thank you for finding my grandmother.’ “

Agunoy and Agcaoili, who both have children, said family support is important in the job that involves rotating shifts and long hours.

So is the camaraderie among the dispatchers.

“They’re very close,” Racadio said. “It’s a family in there. They help take care of each other. We’re very lucky.

“Together as a team, we can make this work. I just need to get more people.”

Information about police emergency services dispatcher jobs is available at www.co.maui.hi.us/428/Join-MPD.

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at lfujimoto@mauinews.com.