It was late in the day last September when Mark Wood answered the phone.
The caller was a mother. Her son was unconscious, and she needed help. Wood, an emergency dispatcher, was the first, life-saving voice she heard.
While emergency medical technicians rushed to the woman’s Eastside home, Wood, a dispatcher at North East King County Regional Public Safety Communications Agency, or NORCOM, calmly walked her through the steps of CPR. His instructions, working through the mother’s actions, helped save the son’s life.
“She had the hard part—she had to actually do the CPR. She did a great job,” said Wood, a North Bend resident, just named one of
three King County Emergency Medical Dispatchers of the Year at an April 12 ceremony.
“It wasn’t just me alone,” he quickly adds. “It’s a real team effort when we do these calls.”
From the other dispatchers routing the emergency medical techs, to the trainers that prepared Mark for the call, to the people who created the entire response system, there are many unseen faces that go into a successful call.
“Every one is different,” Wood said. Trainers and managers “are constantly giving us updated training, so we can be prepared.”
A 12-year North Bend resident, Wood has been a dispatcher since 2001.
He applied for the job after being encouraged by his sister, and went through the 18 months of academy and training.
For Wood, it’s a rewarding job.
“You see things happening on the news—bad things happen, sometimes. It’s good to feel like there’s times I can do something, rather than just hear about it. I can try to help people.”
Wood’s been told that he has a calm demeanor.
“When you get these calls, you realize… somebody’s life could be changed by the actions that they and you do together. It’s serious business. But it can be very rewarding, too.”
Wood doesn’t get upset, and he stays in control. He focuses on the job at hand, though it can be challenging.
“There’s a wide range of emotions that get played out when people call,” he said. “The best thing you can do is give them helpful instructions, and keep them calm, so they can stay focused on what they need to do. “
“They always say we’re the first responders to the scene, even though we don’t actually go there. We’re the ones trying to talk them through anything they need to do.”
Acting quickly can save lives. Wood tries to get callers to perform CPR right away, themselves, instead of waiting for responders.
“When someone collapses, that’s time that their body’s not getting oxygen. Even though the fire department is very quick… they recommend getting CPR started as soon as possible.”
So, he walks them through it, as he did last September.
“Giving CPR over the phone, and providing that level of care, is common place for our dispatchers. It’s what we do every day,” said Sheryl Mullen, operations manager at NORCOM and one of Wood’s superiors.
That said, Wood did a great job getting the caller focused and then delivering vital instructions.
Later, the mom wrote a letter to NORCOM, explaining that her son had had a hard time, but was doing better.
“That was good to hear,” Wood said.
“While we do it every day, it is unusual to hear back from callers about the important role we have played,” Mullen told the Record. “That makes this call especially unique.
Wood doesn’t often get to find out how these calls turn out.
“It’s not my place to know. Everybody’s entitled to their privacy.”
But occasionally, a firefighter will follow up on the tough calls, asking how he’s doing.
“The only thing you can do is use the training you’ve been given,” Wood says.
Emergencies seem to go in waves.
“You’ll go periods where it seems like every other call you take is one of these time-critical calls. Other times, you’ll work for weeks and most calls are non-emergency.”
For Wood, every call is important. Every call makes a connection.
“You get people that call—they really open themselves up. The few minutes you get to talk to them is a very personal thing,” Wood said. “With CPR, or calls like childbirth, you’re dealing with somebody’s life. Every one is extra special.”
“You need to keep perspective on it. You need to stay calm. They’re relying on you to do that,” said Wood.
“As long as I feel like I’m prepared, I don’t worry about what the next one is going to be.”
The praise is good to hear. Now, Wood’s award plaque is on a shelf at home.
Wood’s parents came up for the presentation—”It’s always good to show off for the family.”
The award hasn’t changed Wood.
“To tell you the truth, any one of us could have got this award. We all get the same training. I work with a great group. I’ve seen them do great things. It’s an honor to be recognized, but we all deserve recognition for what we do. I couldn’t have done this by myself.
“Some people that call, they have a harder time staying calm and doing what needs to be done,” Wood added. “The mother that called…. she really did what needed to be done. I’m just glad I was able to help her out.”
Know your address
The most important thing to know in any emergency call is where you are, and Wood is a strong believer in knowing your address.
Without an address, there could be a delay as responders find you in an emergency.
“A lot of people call from cell phones now. We don’t always get that automatic info.”
Some callers may want to rush through calls and avoid questions, thinking it’ll mean a faster response. Not so, says Mullen. In fact, answering dispatcher questions may provide vital to the situation, and doesn’t slow down the emergency response at all.
“If you can, try to listen to the instructions that are given,” he said. Talking someone through CPR over the phone can mean the difference between life and death.
“If you don’t know what to do, we do,” Wood said. “We just need to be able to communicate it to you.”