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ASU Police dispatchers interact with officers in field, handle campuses calls

April 27, 2011

It’s 10 a.m. on a Friday morning at the ASU Police Dispatch department where calls to police are coming in from the university’s four campuses.

Dispatcher Shawn Watson and Supervisor Jill Mariano are working incoming phone calls, interacting with officers in the field and checking in with other agencies across the Valley.  Here’s a snapshot of a typical morning in Dispatch:

10:01 a.m. – Watson answers and routes a call about harassing email and phone calls to an officer.

10:03 a.m. – Another call. “ASU Police. How can I help you? Hold on,” Mariano says.

10:03 a.m. – A call comes in that Mariano answers, this one a 911 call. Two vehicles are involved in an incident. “What are they doing? Let me put you over to Phoenix PD. Don’t hang up, OK?”

10:05 a.m. – Watson talks to an ASU Police Department officer about a vehicle with suspicious plates. He runs the plate and the vehicle identification number to see if they match.

“This job is challenging and it’s never boring,” he says.

10:08 a.m. – “Sweet!” exclaims Mariano. Satellite images are being added to the university’s maps so that the police department can see what is going on in real time.

10:10 a.m. – Watson hears from the officer working on the harassing email and phone calls case. He checks a name to verify ASU affiliation.

10:10 a.m. – Another 911 call. “Do you need police, fire, paramedics? OK, no problem. I’ll cancel,” Mariano says. Some calls to 911 are mistakes or “pocket calls” that emanate from a button pushed while a phone is stowed in someone’s pocket.

10:11 a.m. – Watson tries to fax reports to an officer for a report.

10:11 a.m. – Mariano to Watson: “Do you want to do OT?”

10:13 a.m. – Watson tries the fax again since the machine ate his previous reports.

And, this is a slow day. Things typically pick up after lunch and on the weekends when the department hums with activity.  Testing times are usually slow as well when students are busy hitting the books.

“Most of the time, we’re helping the public when they don’t know what to do like during a power outage when they aren’t sure who provides their electricity,” Watson said. Weekends also bring in lots of calls from the general public who don’t know where to park during events.

Whatever the activity, dispatchers make customer service their top priority. Dispatch is the heart of the university’s police department, where all the calls are funneled in and appropriately dealt with. Sometimes it’s a wrong number. Other times, it’s an emergency that requires police and fire assistance.

“This is the threshold of where it all begins. We must have the right people to handle the calls from crime victims. Dispatchers have to be compassionate and respectful of victims while they learn details that will help officers respond to a call,” said ASU Police Department Chief John Pickens.

ASU dispatchers help people who are visiting campus and they want to hear about things like bikes that are stolen, especially since this is oftentimes students’ only form of transportation.

“We caught two bike thieves just last week,” Mariano said.

The team networks with other police departments from across the Valley including Tempe, Phoenix and Mesa that serve surrounding areas and other campuses. And they network with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, Gilbert Police Department and tribal police, said Police Dispatch Supervisor Michelle Potts.

Dispatchers track a wide-array of services at their stations including maps of the four campuses. When an alarm goes off in an elevators or a building, they can see where it originates.

“Everything is real time,” Watson says.

Two screens at Watson’s workstation are equipped with Positron, a 911 mapping system that shows exactly where land-line emergency calls are emanating from. Cell phone calls can be triangulated and dispatchers can call providers in an emergency for additional information.

Dispatchers also have a monitor that displays radio channels for Maricopa County. Another two screens show the CAD mapping system that shows what is going on at the campuses and which officers are on those calls. A records program can tell dispatchers of previous contact with police. Another alarm system shows the location and what type of alarm is going off.

The team also has access to hundreds of video cameras stationed around the university’s four campuses.  

Although the job is extremely busy, dispatchers enjoy the challenge and the occasional crazy call such as the naked man on campus who was casually waiting at a bus stop. There is also the occasional call from a student who is seeking help from the ASU Police Department about their grades.  

“I love those calls. I usually ask them what they want the police department to do about their grade,” Mariano said.

Those who make the best dispatchers have to be masters of multi-tasking, pay attention to detail and have excellent time-management skills. It’s tough at times to stay calm when people are oftentimes upset.

“I have a ton of empathy. I have to disconnect to an extent to be able to do this job,” Mariano said.