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Dispatcher of the "Year"

December 1, 2022

When San Francisco resident Paul Pelosi, the husband of congressional House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was viciously attacked by a hammer-wielding assailant on October 28, 2022, his 9-1-1 call was answered by SF dispatcher Heather Grimes.

The details of that call and of Ms. Grimes’ intuitive action have been covered at length by local media – as it most deservedly should have been. According to comments attributed to Police Chief William Scott, her intuition and quick-thinking resulted in an immediate police response that quite probably saved Mr. Pelosi’s life. I don’t disagree.

In each issue of the POA Journal, editor Ray Shine reserves a space on the inside for a regular feature titled “Dispatcher of the Month”. That space is given over for the recognition of a Department of Emergency Management (DEM) dispatcher for his or her astute grasp of the emergency and cool action in the face of a caller’s panic and desperation, or for the necessary and critical help of a frontline first-responder. The column is authored by DEM supervisor David Solis, who is obviously proud of the work “routinely” handled by the 9-1-1 folks. As you read through this issue of the Journal, you will find this month’s column on Page 8.

When you turn to that page, you might be puzzled to read that dispatcher Heather Grimes is not the person being acknowledged. I will suggest to you that you should not be surprised. Here is why.
Dispatcher of the Year

I am using this front-page space not to nominate an employee of the month, but to highlight the Dispatcher of the Year. And who is my pick for the DEM man or woman who most personifies the remarkable character and attributes required of such a vital civil servant?
All of them!

It would be difficult to find a single San Francisco emergency responder — be they police, fire, or medical — who would disagree with my choice. I would bet that DEM supervisor Solis, Editor Shine, and even dispatcher Heather Grimes would find my choice absolutely the most deserving and appropriate.

Of course, most people know that the role of an emergency dispatcher is a necessary component of a modern, urban public safety management. However, I feel that the true value and critical service of each individual 9-1-1 operator/dispatcher is under-appreciated by the public, the media, and Hollywood. The stress, emotional investment, and dedication of each dispatcher is rarely given due attention or coverage.

One of the City’s Hardest Jobs
The job is hard. It can take a toll. Long, hectic hours, mandatory holiday work, burn-out. personal trauma is real and impactful. They do not receive the same level of recognition as other first-responders. They often do not even know what the outcome of their service was. Did the CPR instruction revive the child? Was that kitchen fire quickly extinguished? Was the drunken spouse safely disarmed? No one necessarily gives them an update and besides — even if they could — the focus always has to be on to the next call.

As written on the web site, San Francisco DEM dispatchers “are the very first responders to 9-1-1 calls” and must “evaluate the nature and severity of the problem, determine the type of response needed, and dispatch police, fire and/or ambulance units to the scene of the crime, accident, fire or other emergency.” This is an extraordinarily weighty responsibility and requires multi-tasking ability of the nth degree.

That site recommends that all potential DEM dispatchers have a familiarity with a number of benchmark abilities and skills including typing, language and communication, memorization, first-aid, CPR, empathy, composure, and even geography.

The professionalism and poise that was highlighted by the media when Ms. Grimes reacted to an attack on a high-profile person like Mr. Pelosi, was not uncommon. That same level of action and duty is performed dozens of times each day and tens of thousands of times each year by all who answer this city’s DEM calls. It’s hard to believe, but this high level of service is to them just routine, business as usual, normal… just another day (or night) at the office! It matters not to the dispatcher answering a call who is on the other end of the line. That caller could be a homeless person living in a tent on Division Street, or a congresswoman’s husband living in a Pacific Heights mansion. It doesn’t matter. Each caller gets the same, often life-saving attention by the selfless professional sitting at his or her console at the DEM center on Turk Street.

And let’s be grateful for all of them who do the job!