During Diane Branch’s first year on the job as a Hanover communications officer, she received a call from a man who admitted to killing his girlfriend.
He told her, “I shot my girlfriend in the head, I need an ambulance.”
Branch remembered she was shocked and asked him to repeat himself.
“I just could not believe he was telling me this,” Branch said.
The boyfriend told her he would not resist arrest and would wait outside his residence until officers arrived on scene, Branch said.
“[It] kind of creeped me out and haunted me for a while [after],” she said.
As one of 24 full-time communications officers, Branch answers emergency calls from people around the county and the Town of Ashland in need of help and dispatches fire crews, rescue squads, police and animal control units from the emergency communications center. During the week of April 13-19, National Public Safety Telecommunications Week, public safety officers and 911 dispatchers, like Branch, are recognized for their service.
For almost nine years, Branch has worked as a communications officer assisting individuals each day.
When receiving emergency calls, there are often two people involved. First a communications officer will take the call, offer instructions or assistance to the individual and enter information about the incident into a computer system, so that the right emergency forces can be sent out.
For Branch, the rush of adrenaline comes after the call is over.
“When you hang up, it’s like ‘wow!’” Branch said.
Then, the incident is in the hands of the person dispatching the fire department or other emergency force that day.
Depending on the nature of the call, a dispatcher will notify either Hanover Fire-EMS, the Ashland Police Department, sheriff’s office or animal control and start sending out the respective units that are needed while continuing to communicate with all parties involved until the job is done.
The job of a communications officer begins almost as soon as they walk in the door of their building on Library Drive. But what the day holds for them is usually unknown until they figure out what position they’ll be working for the day.
Several employees dispatch for fire and rescue, police or animal control. Another position keeps a close ear to the police service radio and handles warrants and protective orders, among other items, entering them into state and national crime databases. A communications officer may also run criminal background checks, driver’s licenses, and license plates for law enforcement.
After figuring out their position for the day, the arriving communications officer must sign into all computer systems and their phone, then start exactly where the previous person left off.
“When we come in, we’re taking over directly from someone else, so we’re right into [it] that minute,” Branch said.
Public safety officers and dispatchers mostly work eight-hour shifts. Then, for two weeks out of the month, they are on the clock for 10-hour workdays. Because the operation is around the clock, some employees work 10-hour “midnight” shifts.
Balancing the hours and outside work activities is not as much of a task for Branch as it may be for some because she is not married and does not have any children or pets.
But Branch said she has encountered some situations where balancing both work and her personal life was a task. When those scenarios come into play, Branch said two things are important to remember.
“You really do have to try very hard to keep work at work and home at home,” Branch said. “But sometimes you can’t, one bleeds into the other somehow.”
Secondly, communication officers have to make sure they’re taking care of themselves by eating well and getting enough sleep.
“You don’t want your blood sugar to drop and you don’t want to be tired,” she said.
When Branch is not answering calls or dispatching officers or firefighters to a scene, she spends her free time reading or hanging out with family members like her 11-year-old half sister. When her schedule permits, Branch goes out and sees bands perform.
Emergency dispatchers not only have to have time management skills, but the job also requires a certain kind of person to do it right.
“You can be empathetic and you can be that shoulder to cry on, but you know as soon as you hang up the phone, you have to deal with the next situation,” said Cheryl Buchanan, communications center manager.
In one situation, Branch said she received a call last year from a woman who was abducted from Doswell. While on the phone with her, Branch tried to retrieve details about the lady’s whereabouts so that she could send help but several times the kidnapped woman had to hang up the phone.
The lady was being held against her will. While the woman and her kidnapper were on the road, Branch talked to her and tried to retrieve details that would reveal their location. Branch said she had to get creative with her questions and instead listed colors and types of cars so that she could tell the dispatcher.
Eventually, Branch said she lost contact with the victim for a while. Meanwhile, because the victim and kidnapper were traveling on Interstate-95, other jurisdictions and state police were involved. After a while, they were found and stopped in North Carolina.
For Branch’s efforts and those of everyone else involved with that situation, each person obtained a “challenge coin” from the Sheriff’s Office, which is a reward that some people receive for “going above and beyond their responsibilities,” she said.
Before the victim was found, Branch said she went home because she had been at the office for a number of hours during the efforts.
“That was difficult to leave,” she said. “Like I said, we don’t leave the seat until it’s done.”
Branch’s interest in public safety started early on in her life. As a teenager, she was a junior volunteer firefighter for about two years at the Beaverdam Volunteer Fire Company. But her career path ended up taking her to a hair salon, where she worked as a hairdresser for 12 years.
“That just wasn’t exciting enough,” Branch said.
In a search for thrill, Branch stumbled upon an advertisement for the position, went for it, and almost nine years later, she is now a senior communications officer.
Part of the reason Branch said she doesn’t see herself in any other career is the excitement and rush of adrenaline she receives while on duty.
“And now that I’m here I can’t imagine ever going back to cutting hair or doing anything else,” Branch said.