EDITOR'S NOTE: Welcome to Part 4 of Working Stiffs. Denton and surrounding towns are filled with people who work hard for little pay. Students at the University of North Texas Mayborn School of Journalism teamed up with the Denton Record-Chronicle to tell their stories. UNT professor Mark Donald served as their editor. The stories will be appearing in the newspaper and on DentonRC.com over the next few weeks.
"Denton 911, what's your emergency? Can you tell me the location and what's happening?"
It's the voice of Jennifer "Jenny" Dooley, one of Denton's first responders. But rather than wear a badge or carry a gun or drag a fire hose, she wears a headset and no uniform. She's an invisible hero, the wizard behind the curtain, and the first voice you hear in an emergency.
She works the night shift - 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. - in the 911 call center at the Denton Police Department, so she can be a single mom to her two teenage children during the day.
The call center buzzes with the voices of its four dispatchers this Thursday night as they interact with Denton residents, many of whom are calling 911 in heightened states of emotion - anger, sadness, frustration, pain.
The large room is packed tight with computer consoles, seven screens on each. An old box TV wedged between a shelf and the ceiling plays a rerun of Chopped on the Food Network. Its captions are muted. No one has time to pay attention to it, anyway.
Dooley arrived early, as did the other dispatchers, anticipating an overflow of calls after a text about a two-alarm fire.
It's 8:04 p.m., more than an hour into her shift, and one dispatcher is still deploying ambulances and firefighters to the burning structure while another receives a call about a woman stripping to her bra while stealing merchandise off the shelves at Walmart.
"I never know what I'm going to get when I pick up that phone," Jenny says.
Not her first choice
Jenny, 41, has been a public safety dispatcher for the city of Denton for more than 10 years. But the job wasn't anywhere near her first choice. She was a stay-at-home mom when her now ex-husband was laid off, and she needed to help provide for her family.
She gathered as many job applications as she could but pushed the one for police dispatcher to the bottom of the stack. The application was 30 pages long. The training took eight months, the pay was $16 per hour for long, 12-hour shifts. And still she felt drawn to apply.
The job wasn't one that Jenny felt comfortable doing right away, and at times, she would second-guess herself. A few years in, she felt so overwhelmed that she quit for three months and didn't plan to return. But when a police captain requested she come back to train a new batch of dispatchers, she returned full-time instead.
"We've always been told that you can do it or you can't," Jenny says. "It's either for you or it's not."
Nothing prepares a dispatcher for any one shift. Each call is different, from the deadly to the needy to the wacky. The other dispatchers call Jennifer "The Magnet," because she seems to attract the strangest calls.
Several years ago, an elderly woman called in, reporting that she saw babies hanging from a signpost.
"Of course, I'm thinking the worst," Jenny recalls.
She hurried to dispatch an officer to the scene. He found a number of old Cabbage Patch dolls taped to a "Garage Sale" sign, advertising that the dolls were for sale.
She fielded another call from a little girl who couldn't figure out how to turn on the TV since her grandma was taking a nap. After explaining that wasn't a good reason for calling 911, Jenny helped her with the TV.
"I wasn't harsh with her, because I felt like if she ever has a true emergency she would never call again for the fear of getting into trouble," Jenny says.
She replays in her head the details of the more serious calls, some from years earlier. In 2009, two years after she started, she got a call about a robbery in progress. A convenience store clerk had secretly dialed 911 and put the phone down. The "bad guy," as she refers to all criminal suspects, shot out the glass front door. Over the phone, she heard him yelling at the clerk.
"All I could think was, 'Oh my gosh, he's going to kill him, and I'm going to hear him get shot.'"
She dispatched an officer to the location, but the robber got away and the clerk suffered only minor injuries from the shattered glass. Months later, the "bad guy" returned to the store and robbed it again. This time, he was caught, and Jenny did her part. She would testify against him in court three years later.
Personal life suffers
"It's now a disturbance call," says one dispatcher as he listens to the information coming in over his radio.
He rolls his eyes at Jenny as he asks her to dispatch an officer to a local hospital. "The parents have inconsistent stories." He suspects child abuse.
Dispatchers do more than answer 911 calls. Jenny works the primary radio, which means she's in charge of dispatching officers to calls. She knows the location of every police unit in the city and what they're doing. She keeps track of all calls on the patrol radios, too.
Primary dispatchers also time-stamp everything an officer does - when they make an arrest, transport a prisoner, hold someone at gunpoint or deploy a Taser. These police actions need to be documented if the officers are called into court.
She also dispatches fire rescue and paramedics when needed. She runs checks for arrest warrants to see if someone the police have detained is wanted. She runs checks on vehicles to see if they have been reported stolen. She also enters court information into the computer, such as warrants and protective orders.
Staffing levels vary. In the 10 years Jenny has been with the department, the police have never had more than four dispatchers to a shift - the city has functioned with as few as three, she says. While larger cities designate different employees to answer 911 calls and handle police dispatch calls, Jenny does the work of both.
The job has taken its toll on her personal life. When she started, she was married to her children's father. The work became a strain on their relationship, and they divorced. She remarried, this time to a Denton police officer. They lasted six years before their marriage fell apart.
The relationship her job hasn't affected is the one with her children.
"I want to be there for my kids, pick them up and take them to school," Jenny said. "That's why I shifted to nights."
It did, however, affect how she raised her children, as she insisted they grow more aware of their surroundings and realize that at any moment a minor detail could save a person's life. She calls her children "cop kids."
Her daughter Taylor, a 16-year-old high school sophomore with dreams of being a surgeon, appreciates the work her mother does.
"I think her job is so interesting," Taylor says. "I've read where multitasking isn't really a thing but somehow she does it. She doesn't miss anything."
It's 9:39 p.m. and there is a lull in activity.
But at 9:45 p.m., four calls come at once, and each dispatcher answers one.
Jenny has a witness on the line: A drunken driver has just driven his truck into the side of a building. Jenny puts the witness on hold and immediately dispatches an officer to the scene. She juggles between the two, making certain the witness knows she's being heard while making certain the officer understands what Jenny is saying.
As quickly as it begins, it ends.
"You're going to behave tonight on the radio?" Jenny is speaking to a female officer, one of the few who works the night shift. Their friendship is apparent in the way they poke fun at each other.
"I can't promise," the officer responds, laughing as she walks out the door to start her shift.
Her police 'children'
Jenny refers to herself as mom to her police "children." If they come in hungry, Jenny's lunch bag is the place they check for food. Knowing this, she packs extra. If they get hurt in the field - a minor cut from a scuffle, for example - she's prepared with Disney Princesses Band-Aids.
One time, a rookie officer came into the call center. A screw had come loose on his gun holster. He walked straight up to Jenny and asked for help. Improvising, she grabbed a paper clip and screwed it back in.
As she recounts the story, Jenny playfully rolls her eyes. "Leave it to a mom."
And just like any mother, she knows when it's time to hold a child's hand and when it's time to make sure they are safe.
"I've gotten calls with people saying, 'I just need you to send an officer and stop asking questions,'" she says. "Officer safety is my No. 1 priority. I'm not sending them somewhere without as much information as I can get."
While she knows that people are not at their best when thrust into an emergency situation, she wants them to know that her job isn't just sitting behind a desk and answering calls.
"We're holding a lot of lives in our hands," she says.
It's 10:03 and Jenny gets a call that was transferred from a Denton County dispatcher. A woman wants a welfare check done on a family after seeing a Snapchat video of bags of marijuana and a gun. She claims the 18-year-olds are dealing, but their mother doesn't know and has younger kids in the house. She rambles for 10 minutes while Jenny remains patient, tapping the mouse beside her computer out of frustration.
Jenny hangs up with the caller, reading through her notes, trying to find the best way to explain the call to the officers she needs to deploy. "That welfare call is a hot mess," she says.
But even the frequent "hot mess" isn't enough to dissuade her from staying on the job. If anything, these kinds of calls make her want to go deeper into dispatch, even considering the idea of moving and working for the New York Police Department, which has a lot of officers and a lot of in-progress calls - her favorite.
"I absolutely love my job," she says. "I cannot imagine myself doing anything else.
It's 11:43 p.m., not even five hours into her shift. Jenny looks around the call center. All the dispatchers sit quietly at their desks, taking in the momentary silence of no incoming calls.
"It's unusually quiet," she says to the others. "The city is behaving itself."