BANGOR, Maine — Dave King’s back was straight on the morning of Christmas Day, his fingers poised over a keyboard as his eyes scanned four computer screens.
Although the emergency dispatcher’s body language signaled he was dealing with a tense situation, his voice remained calm.
“Do you know if he has any weapons? No. What kind of a car is he driving? A Hyundai Sonata. Do you know where he might be headed? Toward Lincoln.”
As King asked each question of the woman involved in a custody dispute with the father of her children, he repeated her answers aloud. Kim Moncrieffe, the dispatcher next to him, relayed that information to the deputy sheriff who was on his way to the scene.
“Has she got a plate number?” Moncrieffe asked King.
The dispatchers who work at the Penobscot Regional Communications Center, located on the third floor of the historic Penobscot County Courthouse on Hammond Street, handle about 800 calls a day.The shifts are 10 hours long, four days a week, every day of the year, including Christmas.
The crew at PRCC, located on the third floor of the historic Penobscot County Courthouse on Hammond Street, was one of nearly two dozen around the state that spent the holiday helping people.
Less than a mile away, a similar group of dispatchers spent Christmas Day answering emergency calls from Bangor residents at the city’s police station on 240 Main St.
The situation at PRCC started about 11 a.m. Saturday when a man came to pick up his children for the holiday, Tim Hall, the senior operator and shift supervisor, said after King ended the call.
The woman said the father became abusive as he started to leave with the children, so she took them out of the car and they remained with her, Hall said, recounting the calls he supervised. She also reported that the argument had become physical but did not need an ambulance.
“We handle a fair amount of custody disputes,” Hall, 29, of Etna said. “But bad weather brings in the most calls.”
Hall and six dispatchers worked staggered shifts Saturday, but decided to order Chinese food so they could have lunch together on the holiday. Hall, who has worked for eight years at PRCC, did not come to work until 10 a.m., so he celebrated Christmas with his wife and children before coming to work.
King, 40, of Hampden was not so lucky. He had to be at work before his children, ages 11, 3 and 10 months, were awake.
“We’re having Christmas this afternoon,” he said. “The 3-year-old is the most excited. I know it’s a challenge for him to wait for Daddy to get home to open presents.”
Before taking his job two years ago at PRCC, King was a dispatcher for Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. for more than a decade.
“With this job, it’s something different all the time,” he said. “It never gets dull and it’s never boring. Not everything ends well but the ones that do make it worthwhile. Plus, it’s very challenging and I like challenges.”
Jolayne Lowden, 49, of Corinth has been a dispatcher for 13 years. She was working for an answering service in Brewer when her boss, who was married to a PRCC supervisor, handed her an application and told her to fill it out. Lowden said she has stayed on the job because of the good pay and benefits.
A Penobscot County native, Lowden often takes calls from or about people she grew up with or who were her classmates in school. In April, she took a call from Melodie Bellefleur, wife of Gary Bellefleur of Stetson. The 49-year-old stock car driver died in his Stetson garage when the race car he was working on fell on top of him.
“There was nothing I could do for her,” Lowden said. “Callers never know they’re talking to people they know. I know I don’t want them to know they’re talking to someone they might know.”
Hall said that he saw his grandmother’s phone number come up on the screen several years ago, when dispatchers used less-sophisticated equipment.
“I handed the call to someone else,” he said. “It turned out all right, but it was just too personal for me.”
The dispatchers working Christmas Day agreed that the job can be stressful and once in a while a call affects them emotionally.
Moncrieffe said that after one call last year, she went home determined to quit, but was back the next day.
“It was last year,” she said Saturday. “An elderly woman called to say that her husband had gone to get a sack of birdseed and as he carried it into the house, he dropped dead right in front of her. I heard it all in my ear.
“I asked what I could do for her and she asked me to call her daughter at work, which I did,” Moncrieffe said. “I could hear her talking to her husband. She was just so kind and sweet to him. I said to my mom that night, ‘I don’t know if I can do this job anymore,’ but I was back the next day.”
Moncrieffe has worked at PRCC for six years. Before becoming a dispatcher, she worked as a travel agent for 17 years. Her brother, Bangor police Detective Tim Cotton, suggested she apply for the job.
“When those tough calls are over, people just have to turn their calls over to someone else, step outside to scream or cry or both,” Hall said. “After that, they get back to helping the people who need it.”