Longtime dispatcher to hang up headset

Posted: Sunday, September 22, 2002

Twenty-nine years of experience walk out the door of the Alaska State Troopers Soldotna headquarters Friday, when 911 dispatcher Judy Nelson retires.

And, she'll be missed.

Troopers, local police, medical and fire responders will no longer hear the calm, informed voice of Nelson directing them to an emergency scene.

"Oh, she's good," said Soldotna Police Department administrative clerk Linda Sheehan.

"The officers really like when she's handling the calls because she's so accurate and thorough -- she's so experienced," Sheehan said.

Accuracy, thoroughness and being able to remain calm in an often chaotic situation are qualities that come together in the person of Nelson -- qualities that come with experience.

"When I started dispatching 29 years ago, it was actually with the city of Soldotna," Nelson said. "Then it became a state job 23 years ago. It was still the same job."

In fact, emergency 911 dispatchers are housed in the state trooper building on Kalifornsky Beach Road and dispatch fire, police and medical emergency calls for communities from Nikiski to Homer, over to Cooper Landing and from Seward up to Hope. The only exception is the city of Kenai, which handles its own emergency dispatching.

Over the years, Nelson has found that the better she knows her job and knows the rules and procedures for handling emergencies, "the more I can do it automatically, and I can do it more efficiently," she said.

"Sometimes you have to put your emotions on hold. You have to handle what's happening as best you can and take care of yourself afterward.

"I have a wonderful husband who lets me come home and vent," she said of David, her husband of 34 years.

It was her husband's job offer from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game that brought the couple north from Wisconsin in 1970. He retired recently after more than 30 years as a state biologist but has since gone back to work as a biologist for the state Parks Service in Anchorage.

"I never thought we would stay here this long," said the dispatcher, who has no plans of returning to work. "I plan to play."

When she looks back on her career, Nelson recalls a day when training was "strictly OJT," or on-the-job training.

Cities did not have 911 or emergency medical dispatch, and procedures were "mostly fly by the seat of your pants," she said. EMD is a regimen of training that certifies dispatchers in basic life support, including cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and choking-related emergencies.

"We shared a radio frequency with Anchorage, and we didn't have many incoming phone lines. Without computers, you didn't know if someone had outstanding warrants when you were sending an officer out and you didn't know who a vehicle was registered to.

"It'll all be in my book," she said jokingly, referring to the proverbial book she would like to write someday.

She also remembers sitting near an open window, with little concern for dispatcher safety.

It was a quieter time with a smaller Kenai Peninsula population and fewer emergency calls.

"We could go a whole graveyard shift without the phone ringing once," she said. "Soldotna had about 1,000 people in the city limits, and there were no tourists in the summer. Residents had it all to themselves."

The more memorable emergency calls she received over the years were "mostly sad," she said.

"I remember one lady who walked to a house in the Kasilof area to report that her husband had been killed by a bear. They had been camping on Tustumena Road when the bear attacked.

"They were a young couple -- in their 20s -- and they were on their honeymoon. She was doing OK and did not need medical help. All I could do was send a trooper. They recovered the body from across the lake.

"That was back in the '70s, and there weren't procedures for that kind of thing. You did what you felt was right," Nelson said.

Because of experiences including that one, Nelson said she has worked a little with a former supervisor to develop procedures for handling calls such as reports of deaths, which require notifications be made with the medical examiner, procedures for dispatching ambulances and lists of resources that might be available in the event of an overturned boat or crashed plane.

"Today we have computers that give us access to statewide and national information for the troopers. We have Enhanced 911 (which automatically identifies the location of a 911 caller) and EMD, where we can give pre-arrival instructions to people on the scene," she said.

"Because of that, dispatchers have helped mothers give birth and have even given CPR over the phone."

Nelson said what she will miss most is her co-workers.

"I can't count the number of troopers and dispatchers I've worked with over the years, but they're the finest people to have worked with," she said.

"I have really loved this job, and I wake up in the morning every day and I'm glad to go to work. Helping people and seeing the results of what you do make this job great."

When she leaves Friday, Nelson is heading back to Wisconsin where her 90-year-old mother lives, then back to Soldotna and on to visit family in Texas and California after the first of the year.

The Nelsons have a son, Michael, 31, who lives in California with his wife, Tina, and a 1-year-old son. Another son, Dan, lives in Anchorage where he is majoring in business at the University of Alaska.

Current plans call for the Nelsons relocating permanently to Wisconsin next fall.

"I don't have any plans in particular -- maybe do some volunteer work ... maybe work on a crisis line -- and I am going to grow a garden ... without the fear of moose eating everything."



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