‘Help is on the way’: A dispatcher’s story

Published 5:00 pm Saturday, May 27, 2023

“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”

These words have started the conversation for millions upon millions of phone calls since the three-digit emergency number was first used in 1968.

In Lincoln County, dispatcher Abby Thornton has fielded emergency calls for 19 years.

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She had studied computers at The University of Southern Mississippi, then returned home to study radiology at Copiah-Lincoln Community College.

“I just didn’t like it,” Thornton said, so she interviewed at the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office for an open dispatcher position she’d been told about.

The job appealed to her because she liked helping people and trying to make a difference.

“Every day is different. That’s what I like about the job — you just never know,” she said. “Every time you pick up the phone, it’s going to be something you maybe have never had. It’s going to be something different.”

Over the nearly two decades she’s spent in the dispatch office, she’s had some difficult calls.

“Calls with children, and the elderly, those are tough,” Thornton said. “And when something happens with one of your officers. You’re like family with them, so that’s difficult.”

One of the most difficult calls she’s had involved a domestic call in which a baby died. It was a hard call.

But each 12-hour-plus shift has rewarding moments, too.

“We’re helping people in their difficult times,” she said. “We’re staying on the phone with them until help arrives. We don’t just answer the phone and hang up.”

Some people have a misconception that dispatchers simply sit behind a desk, answer the phone, push a button or transfer a call and wait for the next one. But that’s not the case, Thornton said.

“We stay on the phone with them until a deputy arrives, or the fire department or an ambulance,” she said. “And we hear everything that’s going on in the background. We hear screaming, or shots fired, or someone having difficulty breathing. We’re on the phone with them, trying to get all the information for the deputy so they don’t go into that situation blind.”

The dispatcher’s voice is the voice of hope and help when someone calls with an emergency.

Soon, the dispatcher offices at the county and Brookhaven Police Department will merge into a centralized E911 location on Old Hwy. 51. Thornton doesn’t anticipate it will cause any new difficulties for any of them.

“We’ll just have to learn and get used to how the police officers work, and get the kinks worked out,” she said. “And the BPD dispatchers will have to learn how we work the deputies, fire and ambulance.”

Thornton and the other dispatchers will continue to route calls as needed, stay on the line with people needing help, and offer a comforting voice reminding each caller, “Help is on the way.”