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Amber Curtis is a firm believer that strange things happen when the moon is full.
She doesn’t need a calendar or a telescope, she said, insisting she can tell when the sun and moon are perfectly aligned simply by the odd calls that come in to Bristol Tennessee Central Dispatch. She’s tested her theory time and time again and now, after 16 years as a Bristol Tennessee 911 dispatcher, she accepts the strange phenomenon as part of the job. Still, regardless of the lunar phases, she takes each call seriously, listening intently, gathering information, and sending help when necessary.
She was just 19 when her employer closed the doors and Amber suddenly found herself without a job. Her Aunt Peggy - a long-time employee of the City’s Department of Utility Services - mentioned the City was looking for dispatchers. Amber applied, was hired, and immediately began a months-long process of learning and listening with an experienced trainer by her side - taking calls, dispatching first responders, monitoring the location of police officers and firefighters in the field, searching for information through a national database, and assisting callers on what is very often the worst day of their life.
“I like knowing that I can make a difference for someone when their life is turned upside down,” she said.
Like the time early in her career when a young child called to report her teenage sister was having a baby. After dispatching an EMS crew, Amber asked to speak to an adult - which turned out to be a mistake.
“The father was there but he was so flustered that I asked him to put the child back on the phone,” she said. “She listened to everything I told her to do and they were able to deliver the baby. They were getting ready to cut the (umbilical) cord when the ambulance got there.”
She has a long list of medical protocols to help callers provide first aid for everything from chest pains to severe bleeding until first responders arrive - diligently asking questions and providing instructions while at the same time communicating with emergency crews. Her co-workers often jump in to help, she said, to ensure everyone stays informed and a quick response is delivered.
“The worst calls are the ones that have something to do with a baby,” she said. “When you get a call about (sudden infant death syndrome), or a baby choking or not breathing, it’s really hard.”
It’s also hard when a police officer or firefighter is put in danger, she said, explaining that they all have a special familial bond. She recalled a recent incident when two firefighters got disoriented inside a burning structure. She blocked out all background noise, she said, and stayed focused on radio transmissions while their co-workers guided them to safety.
“I cried during that one,” she said.
In addition to answering emergency calls, Central Dispatch answers non-emergency calls to the police department and after-hours calls to the city about everything from water leaks to fallen trees. From time to time, they also get calls about such things as cats stuck in trees or forgotten trash cans on garbage day. She’s even gotten calls from people trying to reschedule a doctor’s appointment.
Dispatchers work 12-hour shifts, Amber explained, which requires a strong support system to keep things running smoothly at home. Her husband, parents, and in-laws all pitch in to help with childcare and other parental responsibilities so she can concentrate on the important job before her during working hours. Dispatchers don’t have the freedom to leave the office during their shift, she said, so they even depend on police officers and firefighters to pick up food and deliver it for them. It’s a good system for the most part, but there have been times when an emergency call comes in and their salad or sandwich is transported all over town, from one emergency call to another before getting delivered. It’s all part of the job.
When she’s not at work, Amber loves family time. She and her husband of 10 years have three young daughters and recently became foster parents to a little boy. They hope he will become a permanent part of their family, she said, and big brother to the child she is expecting in August. She has “lots of love to give” and looks forward to big family gatherings, especially camping trips and other outdoor activities with extended family members.
Until then, it’s business as usual, answering calls and sending help to those in need. She is the voice on the phone, asking questions, gathering information, giving instructions and dispatching assistance to strangers throughout the City. She doesn’t meet them and often has no idea what happens once she ends the call. That’s okay, she said, because it’s rewarding enough just to know she provided help to someone who needed her.
As we celebrate National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, the City is proud to salute 911 Dispatcher Amber Curtis – a valued employee and loving mother - for the vital service she and her coworkers provide to our City. She’s another outstanding example of #BristolatWork.