What’s your emergency?: Meet the El Paso heroes behind the voices

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EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — They’re always on the line when you need them.

Local 911 dispatchers have been responding to emergency calls in the midst of the pandemic this last year and continue to do so. They put in extra work to ensure the community’s safety.

“There’s never been this type of thing. Where it comes to shutting the entire city and country down. I’ve never experienced that in the 25 years that I’ve been here,” said Melissa Gamez, a police department dispatcher at the El Paso County 911 District.

New and long-time local 911 dispatchers have adjusted to the job in the era of COVID-19.

“The traffic with the units has increased so much,” Gamez said. “You’ve got the COVID units that are calling out, they just keep adding more units out in the field. For one person to handle could be like 80, 90 units for one person to handle on one talker.”

The process of taking calls has required additional steps to ensure the safety of first responders and civilians.

“You’ve got to verify that they’re doing well, what is the COVID around their area, anything like that that’s going to help keep them safe and as well as our first responders such as police and firemen,” said Esther Lerma, a telecommunicator at the El Paso County 911 District.

Local dispatchers say they take all sorts of calls, especially during overnight hours. Whether they’re COVID-19 or other high-intensity calls, there’s been an increase due to the pandemic.

“We have a lot of domestic violence calls coming in and yet we have to send our officers to COVID calls to go close these businesses down. So it’s like kind of hard to level them out and send them to anything right away when they’re stuck on something over here and people are refusing to sign tickets. I get it, it just takes a toll on me,” said Abigail Mancilla, a police department dispatcher at the El Paso County 911 District.

Mancilla joined the El Paso County 911 District in December 2019. She said being short-staffed during these times causes more stress sometimes, but is thankful for her job.

“Normal work hours for two weeks is 80. I’m pushing over 20 to 30 hours of extra overtime for two weeks. So it’s just being a team player.”

Handling the emotional, as well as the mental, toll that comes with the job can be difficult for professionals who must keep their wits about them during chaotic times.

“It took a year for at least 10 calls to be on my mind every day. It never goes away, I’ll say that right now. It’s forever going to be embedded in my head, but I always think about how we tried everything we could,” Mancilla shared.

Despite the stress, Gamez added that she feels a deep responsibility to keep everyone involved in each call as safe as possible.

“It’s never the same. You can have emergency traffic, foot pursuit, a shooting, a stabbing — and you just have to sit there and go through it and handle it. In the end, I know what I’m doing, and at least those guys are going to go home safe,” Gamez said.

While adjusting to these changes due to the pandemic, El Paso dispatchers say making a difference for people in a time of need makes all the hard work worthwhile.

“I like knowing that I get to go to work, I get to be a dispatcher and I get to help somebody on their bad day. It just makes my day much better. I like knowing the guys and girls I serve are out there doing the same thing. It makes me feel very good. I enjoy coming to work every day,” Mancilla shared.

“Every time you hear something different and you made a difference, you helped that person and helped save a life. You got help out there to them at their most critical moment. It’s a rewarding job, it really is. You go home feeling good about yourself and you get to do it all over again tomorrow,” Lerma added.

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