Answering the call

Central Maui Dispatch helps people in their time of need

Central Maui dispatchers Genella Albino (from left), Reane Gonzales-Fa’alata, Tori Adolpho, Tracy Pellazar, Ikaika Texeira, Susan Egdamin, Valerie Mukai and Kanoe Agcaoili pose last week during a rare moment with no incoming 911 emergency calls. The hard-working dispatch crew was operating in the Kihei Station while the center in Wailuku undergoes renovations. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

It started out like any other weekend. But the morning of Saturday, Jan. 13, turned out to be anything but normal.

Emergency services dispatcher Kanoe Agcaoili had just finished her overnight shift and was headed home to get some well-deserved shut-eye. As she drove out of the Wailuku Police Station parking lot, her cellphone buzzed.

Glancing over at it, she was startled to see the all-caps text message: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

Agcaoili didn’t know it at the time, but a Hawaii Emergency Management Agency employee had mistakenly sent out a false warning of an imminent ballistic missile attack to mobile phones across the state at 8:07 a.m. (a second emergency alert was issued 38 minutes later clarifying it was a false alert). Without a moment’s hesitation, she flicked on her blinker, made a U-turn and drove back to the police station. Inside the communications center, the phones were ringing off the hook. Agcaoili returned to her desk and began answering calls.

By 9 a.m., she and five other dispatchers received more than 715 emergency calls, in addition to 374 abandoned calls (dispatchers subsequently contacted those callers to conduct welfare checks).

Agcaoili is among the dedicated men and women who work around the clock — 24 hours a day, seven days a week — answering 911 calls and dispatching police, fire and ambulance units accordingly.

The dispatch team includes Agcaoili, Tori Adolpho, Selina Agunoy, Genella Albino, Terryn Cabigas, Reane Gonzales-Fa’alata, Melia Johnson, Lyndsey Kahuhu, Natasha Kaiwi, Kathi Kamalani, Bridget Keener, Johnel Lozano, Valerie Mukai, Jennifer Natividad, Tracy Pellazar, Jason Pomeroy, Joseph Souza, Stacy Vinoray and Kevin Wolff; and emergency services dispatcher supervisors Susan Egdamin, Marianne Feteira, Davlynn Racadio, Lore Lee Robello and Mary Toro.

Simply put, they serve as a lifeline for people in emergency situations — often when seconds can mean the difference between life and death.

“They do so much to help others,” said Lt. John Foster, who oversees Maui Police Department’s communications section. “They are the unseen heroes.”

Without question, it’s a demanding job. There’s no such thing as a “typical day.” Dispatchers often field hundreds of calls (both 911 calls and administrative calls for the Maui Police Department) in a single shift. And they routinely talk to people on what may be one of the worst days of their lives.

Even so, being the voice on the other end of the line is intensely fulfilling. Just ask Egdamin, who has worked in the communications center for nearly three decades.

“There are good calls and there are bad calls,” she said. “But no matter what kind of call it is, you know you’re making a difference. That’s the greatest reward for me.”

Long before they put on a headset, the dispatchers undergo rigorous training. Among other things, rookies spend several months learning medical protocol (ranging from CPR to delivering a baby) and how to thoroughly and levelheadedly suss out a caller’s situation and quickly relay it to first responders. They also become fluent in police 10-codes and a dizzying number of acronyms and abbreviations.

And dispatchers take multitasking to a whole new level. It’s an extraordinary feat: They can calm a distressed caller, enter information into a computer, contact medics on a two-way radio and talk to a supervisor seated next to them — all at the same time. As if that weren’t impressive enough, they also have a seemingly superhuman ability to remain focused and composed under pressure.

It’s a fast-paced and adrenaline-fueled job, but these dispatchers say providing such a critical service to the community is profoundly rewarding. Whether it’s saving a life or catching the bad guy, Egdamin said, “We are here to help you.”

And there’s a few things they’d like you to know.

If you are in a serious situation where police, fire or emergency medical assistance is required, call 911 and answer all of the call-taker’s questions, even if they seem irrelevant (Egdamin assures every question is deliberate and significant).

Foster says many people accidentally dial 911, particularly if their mobile phone is in a purse or pants pocket; these calls can tie up the line and compromise legitimate emergency calls. Foster suggests passcode-locking phones to prevent these snafus. And if you’re aware you inadvertently dialed 911, don’t hang up (if you do, someone will call you back); stay on the line and explain the error to the dispatcher.

If you need assistance for a nonemergency situation, the Maui Police Department’s nonemergency number is 244-6400. If you are unsure if your situation qualifies as an emergency, dial 911; dispatchers will determine if immediate action is required or if you should hang up and dial the nonemergency line.

Foster is currently seeking applicants for several vacant dispatcher positions. To learn more, visit www.mauicounty.gov/428/Join-MPD, call 244-6380 or email joinmpd@mpd.net.