PHOENIX - It is the first voice you hear at what could be one of the darkest times in your life. They are the "unseen heroes" working at every law enforcement agency in the country.
In the city of Phoenix alone 221 communications operators are working round the clock, taking calls from distressed citizens. Some may be in dangerous life threatening situations, others needing an officer to come to their home immediately.
From trespassing calls to domestic violence, and assaults, these call takers have just about heard it all. In Phoenix, they work 10-hour shifts answering almost 6,300 calls a day. Many of the dispatchers are the direct line to officers out on the street, logging their every move, giving them critical, timely information that is crucial to the call they are responding to.
"These dispatchers are our lifeline," said Sergeant Alan Pfohl, spokesman for the Phoenix Police Department.
"They come to every call with us. They truly are the 'unseen heroes'. They live through the call with us," added Pfohl.
The dispatchers and call takers working know all of the 250 codes used by police officers, and they are charged with getting critical information to give to officers before they arrived at the scene. This information includes finding out who all was going to be greeting the officer when they arrive, what state of mind were they in, were any of them armed with a weapon, or whether an ambulance or medics are needed.
All information that is critical to protecting the officers by giving them knowledge of what to expect on a call, also letting them gauge whether backup units might be needed.
Right now the department is short dispatchers. Stacie Hainke, a recruiting officer for the Phoenix Police Department Communications Bureau said they were looking to hire about 80 dispatchers.
She called it hard work, that was also very rewarding.
Hainke first got into the business to follow in the footsteps of her father who was a Phoenix Police officer. She was 20 years old when she started, saying the tuition reimbursement program offered by the department was what drew her in.
"I've always wanted to be involved in law enforcement in some way. I just didn't want to be an officer," said Hainke.
For Communications Officer Krissy Esparza, it was the pay, but she says the first time she went for the job she wasn't mentally and emotionally ready for the demands.
"I was too nervous. Then I tried again in 2001. I decided mentally I was ready to take on more challenges. It was overwhelming at first because at that moment, every call was something you are experiencing for the first time," said Esparza.
21 years later, Esparza says she's become a natural at the job, knowing exactly what questions to ask when the calls come in.
She admitted there were some calls that were emotionally overwhelming, and stayed with her long after they hung up the phone.
One that will always stick with her is a call for help from a 16-year old boy who had a gun, and was threatening to commit suicide. Esparza said she stayed on the phone with the teen for 45 minutes. The biggest challenge was to try to keep his attention, and keep on the phone with her. After running through all the questions she was trained to ask, Esparza said she started thinking about her own teenagers and what their interests were, and tried to bring those up to keep the boy on the line.
"There were a couple times I got nervous myself. He hung up on me a couple times. I called back and he answered right away so right then the light went on in me. He doesn't want to do this, he is calling for attention and he needs help," said Esparza. She kept the teen on the phone until an officer arrived.
ABC15 Arizona asked Esparza if she felt that she had saved the boy's life.
"I feel like I played a big part in it," she answered.
We asked Esparza what was the most frustrating aspect of answering the 911 calls for help.
"I think the most frustrating calls we get are people who call us wanting help, but they aren't answering any of our questions. The most important information we need from them at every call is an address, and a good address," said Esparza.
Hainke added that she wanted people to know that 911 was for emergencies only. This included crimes that were in progress, or had just taken place, or anything with potential for escalation.
Hainke said if people wanted to file a police report, 911 was not the number to call.
She encouraged callers to use their non-emergency line 602-262-6151 to file police reports.
As overwhelming as the job may sound, Hainke said no experience was required to apply for the job of becoming a Communications Dispatcher.
"All you need is a high school diploma or a GED. No degree is required. You can actually earn your degree as you work here. One of the great benefits is we offer tuition reimbursement. We will train you in everything else," said Hainke.
One of the requirements though, is the ability to type fast.
"The minimum qualification is 40 words per minute from dictation," said Hainke.
That is because dispatchers are typing everything that is said to them on the phone or the police radio.
The starting pay for a communications dispatcher in Phoenix is about $18.50 an hour with two raises available in the first 18 months for those who kept up with the training.
The pay range topped out at about $29 an hour, but Hainke said many dispatchers transferred to other units within the Phoenix Police department to make more money.
"We have had dispatchers move on to records to pull calls for detectives and lawyers, we have supervisors, shift managers, we've had many go on to work in the Crime Lab after getting their degrees, and many who have also become police officers. If you're interested in becoming an officer this is a great place to start right when you're 18, then after two years you can apply to become an officer," said Hainke.
The job provides 36 weeks of fully paid training, this includes in-class training as well as sitting on the floor with a call taker or dispatcher.
"It's a great job if you like to help people," said Hainke.
"Although they are the first contact with the public, the public does not see them. They see the blue uniform, but really it's the dispatchers that are our lifeline. They're helping keep us safe," added Sgt. Pfohl.
ABC15 Arizona checked in with every law enforcement agency in the valley to see how many more communications operators they need. This includes both 911 operators and dispatchers.
Here is the break down from agencies that got back to us within the last week:
Phoenix- hiring 80 Communications operators
DPS- 24 positions open statewide
Mesa- 15 positions open
Gilbert- 5 positions open
Tempe- 2 positions open
Pinal County- 3 positions open
Hainke said one of the big challenges they faced while hiring was seeing people who passed the background check. To apply you cannot be currently using any drugs, including medical Marijuana.
For more information, or to apply for a communications officer position, you can visit the website of the department you are interested and fill out the application online. The Phoenix website is HERE.