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June 26, 2022

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Clark County 911 dispatchers tackle difficult job — and they are hiring

The deadline to apply is May 31

By , Columbian staff writer
4 Photos
An illuminated orange light indicates Clark County dispatcher Robyn Hensley is on a call while working in downtown Vancouver. The Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency is hiring more dispatchers amid an increase in 911 calls across the growing county.
An illuminated orange light indicates Clark County dispatcher Robyn Hensley is on a call while working in downtown Vancouver. The Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency is hiring more dispatchers amid an increase in 911 calls across the growing county. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Several of Clark County’s 911 dispatchers never imagined they’d be the ones answering the phones when someone calls about an emergency.

One said she was working at a bank when she decided to apply at the Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency’s dispatch center. Another was at a dental office, and another was working toward medical school.

They applied at the agency for the challenge, the fast pace, and a schedule of four days on and four days off.

The Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency is again hiring more dispatchers after receiving funding for four more staffers amid an increase in call volumes. The agency has 56 dispatchers but now has capacity for 64. The agency has also felt the county’s growing pains and the ways the increasing population has strained its staffing levels, along with the departments it works alongside.

The deadline to apply is May 31. People can apply at

But it’s not an easy process to start answering emergency calls. Agency spokesman Eric Frank warns that the position is a career, not just a job, and applicants must be prepared for a year of demanding training with an ever-changing schedule.

Applicants don’t need a college degree or any prior training. They don’t even need to be familiar with the entirety of Clark County because that’s a part of the training academy, Frank said. Applicants will take a test to measure their keyboard, memorization and recall skills, which Frank said has a 60 percent pass rate.

Many of the current dispatchers said they were drawn to the dynamic pace of the job and the way that no two days are the same. Jennifer Melton enjoys when she pieces together a problem, like a puzzle, by collaborating with her coworkers to connect several calls they’ve received throughout the day.

Frank noted one call that the Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency received about someone who was in trouble at a local river. Rescuers were too far away to get to the person in a timely manner, so a dispatcher started calling around. The dispatcher found someone with a private boat nearby who could get to the person much faster.

‘It’s life or death’

Jodi Gaylord, a supervisor at the agency, said she approaches each call as if she’s guiding the caller down a hallway with doors on all sides, representing police, fire, paramedics, crisis negotiators, mental health providers and many more services. It’s her job to get each person through the right door, she said.

While the role is rewarding, Abby Ogdee said it’s not one that people should commit to lightly. She said it’s important for those who enter the training program to have their home lives sorted and a good support system. She didn’t apply until she was sure she had child care for the four 10-hour shifts she works each week.

“You really give yourself to the job the first year,” Ogdee said. “It requires your full attention — it’s life or death. You have to learn to leave your life at home, and you have to be honest about where you are with your personal life.”

Ogdee has no regrets about making the career change from working at a dental office.

“Knowing what you’re doing is special is rewarding,” she said. “The best part is when you feel you made a difference for somebody.”

After 25 years at the Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency, Kelly Henderson said she’s still seeing new types of calls and constantly adapting. She said an important part of the job is being able to let go of the traumatic calls once they’re over; some people struggle to do that.

“You can’t make this stuff up,” Gaylord said. “You learn every day.”

Gaylord said the hardest part is the yearlong training and becoming comfortable with never knowing who or what is going to be on the other end of the phone. But Henderson said no one is alone on the dispatch floor.

It can be challenging when dispatchers don’t get to hear how a situation ended, although Gaylord said sometimes it’s better when she doesn’t know.

“It’s a thankless job, and sometimes it’s hard to feel like you’re making a difference,” she said. “But it’s bigger than you realize, and it gives you an appreciation for life.”

Some difficult calls have stuck with Gaylord, but she said those often motivate her to never let something similar happen again.

For a job that can be so serious, several dispatchers also called the role fun and said their constant teamwork makes them feel like a family that shares the burden.

Melton said the work is often not like it’s portrayed in movies, which tend to show only the most intense, high-stakes aspects of the job. While those types of calls happen, Frank said, dispatchers sometimes have to act as Google when people call with random problems.

But if she could go back in time, Melton said, she would’ve started as a dispatcher sooner.

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