When Elizabeth “Liz” Ryan began her nearly 40-year career as an emergency dispatcher in the early 1980s, she used a manual typewriter with a red and black ribbon, a landline telephone and a two-way radio to communicate with police officers, firefighters and ambulance personnel.
Her last day on the job Friday found her seated in front of multiple computer screens.
One screen shows where the person who dialed 911 is located. Another shows the number the call is coming from, where the phone is located or the location of the cell phone tower closest to that phone.
As Ryan types in information she receives from the caller, it appears on a different screen. The information she relays to first responders and their responses appear on still another screen.
It’s not only the technology that has changed in the decades Ryan has been on the job. The number of calls dispatchers have received has risen as cell phones have become ubiquitous, and the nature of the emergencies has changed as well as the opioid epidemic has taken its toll.
A typewritten call log Ryan saved from her early years as a dispatcher illustrates some of these changes.
The log is typed in uppercase letters with the information from the incoming call typed in red and the response typed in black.
Calls on one shift included a report that a man was “STRANDED ON BLACKCAP MTN” and that a woman’s car was “OFF ROUTE#2 PALMEYER (sic) RD NEWPORT. SHE IS WAITING ON WRECKER.” A different woman called to ask what she should do “ABOUT HER DEAD BROTHERS TRUCK.”
Nowadays, the Penobscot Regional Communications Center might get multiple calls about the same car crash.
“Fifteen years ago, if you were in an accident on Wilson Street that wasn’t too serious, you’d go into the nearest business and ask them to report it,” she said. “Now, because of cell phones, we get multiple calls about a lot of accidents and incidents.”
From left (clockwise): Liz Ryan, a dispatcher at the Penobscot Regional Communication Center, is retiring from her 39-year career on July 2; The Thin Gold Line is a symbol used by emergency dispatchers. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN
Information shared on social media about ongoing emergencies, which can be inaccurate, has also proliferated, she said.
When she began dispatching for the Brewer police in 1983, Ryan said, calls reporting possible drug overdoses were exceedingly rare. Now, they come almost daily.
This year, Maine has averaged nearly 50 overdose deaths each month through April. That compares with about 40 overdose deaths each month in the first four months of 2020, which was the deadliest year on record for overdose deaths with 502 recorded, according to the Maine Attorney General’s office.
“It’s definitely gotten more stressful,” Ryan said of the job.
Her 32-year-old boss, Penobscot Regional Communications Center Director Christopher J. Lavoie, was not yet born when Ryan began working as a dispatcher.
Ryan can’t be replaced, he said.
“It takes a strong person who is caring, compassionate and a good team worker to be a dispatcher,” Lavoie said. “The average time a person works as a dispatcher is between three and seven years. The fact that she’s been doing this for close to 40 years speaks volumes about her abilities. She has every quality it takes to be a good dispatcher.”
Ryan graduated from what is now John Bapst Memorial High School and earned a two-year degree in criminal justice from what is now the University of Maine at Augusta in Bangor.
Her first job in the summer of 1980 was working as “the token female police officer” in Bar Harbor, she said. That experience convinced her that she’d rather be on “the other side of the microphone.”
Ryan worked as a dispatcher for the Penobscot County Sheriff’s office for a year before going to work in Brewer, where she worked alone. She stayed there 15 years until the Penobscot Regional Communications Center was created in 1997.
Initially, the center dispatched for Brewer, Hampden and the county sheriff’s office. Today, it handles calls for nearly every municipality in the county except Bangor, which has its own dispatch operation. The center also takes initial calls from Aroostook County and forwards them to the appropriate agencies. More than 30 dispatchers at the center handle nearly 1,000 calls a day, according to its website.
From left (clockwise): Liz Ryan, a dispatcher at the Penobscot Regional Communication Center, is retiring from her 39-year career on July 2. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik
“Every day is different. Every phone call is different,” Ryan said. “I’ve enjoyed the people I’ve worked with.”
In 1995, as a dispatcher for the Brewer Police Department, Ryan was asked what the toughest part of her job was for a profile in The Weekly.
“Probably feeling a sense of helplessness,” Ryan replied. “You’ve got emergency personnel going to the scene, but the lady’s on the phone, she’s older and has trouble breathing. Also, it’s hard when there’s children involved.”
She also said in 1995 that “shy of winning the Megabucks, I’d be doing the same job.”
Ryan stood by that statement in an interview the week before her Friday retirement.
Ryan is among three Penobscot County employees who have retired over the past month.
Penobscot County Deputy Sheriff Peter Stone worked for the sheriff’s office for 40 years before retiring last month, and Detective Sergeant Robert Jordan retired after 32 years on the job.