Day in the Life: North Shore Regional 9-1-1

Day in the life cover image

By: Aly Pickett

Zetron is honored to work with mission critical communications professionals across a wide array of applications and industries. Our daily interactions with these extraordinary individuals inspired us to launch our Day in the Life blog series. Learn more and read the full series.

For this edition of Day in the Life, we had the pleasure of connecting with Katrina Shamshak and Robert Norton of North Shore Regional 9-1-1. After encountering some heartfelt submissions about telecommunicators and their centers during our Golden Headset Awards for National Public Safety Communicators Week, we found ourselves interested in hearing more about their agency and what they do. In this shared interview, we get a little insight into the day-to-day lives of North Shore Regional 9-1-1’s dispatchers, trainers, and quality assurance team. Read through to the end to get helpful tips for the general public when dealing with 9-1-1 and learn what our interviewees’ hope will change for the industry ten years from now.

Katrina scaledKatrina Shamshak
Public Safety Dispatcher III
Massachusetts, USA

Robert NortonRobert Norton
Public Safety Dispatcher I
Massachusetts, USA

What’s your name, your organization’s name, and location?

Katrina: My name is Katrina Shamshak. I work at North Shore Regional 9-1-1, and it’s in Middleton, Massachusetts.

Robert: Robert Norton, also North Shore Regional 9-1-1.

Can you give a description of your agency in terms of size, jurisdiction etc.?

Katrina: North Shore Regional is part of the Massachusetts State 9-1-1 department. We’re one of their operations centers, dispatch for six communities, and we’re still actively onboarding, so that number could increase. Currently, we have 44 employees. We handle all 9-1-1 calls as the public safety answering points (PSAPs), and we handle Emergency Medical Dispatch (EMD) responsibilities as well.

Robert: We answer and fully process 9-1-1 calls for emergency assistance for six communities (Amesbury, Essex, Middleton, Topsfield, Wenham, and Manchester-by-the Sea Massachusetts). This includes radio dispatching units for police, fire, and EMS (emergency medical services) for these communities. We also receive, direct, and otherwise process related nonemergency calls for these communities. Members of administration and operations are staffed at North Shore Regional 9-1-1. Our administration is staffed by a Director, Deputy Director, and Operations Manager. Operations consist of Telecommunicators and Supervisors. All employees are extensively qualified, meeting and exceeding the standards set by APCO and the Massachusetts State 9-1-1 Department. All of our staff are required to undergo certification, as well as continuing education training.

North Shore Regional Center

Can you both describe your roles there?

Katrina: I am considered a Public Safety Dispatcher III. What that means is there’s Public Safety Dispatcher I – frontline dispatchers, Public Safety Dispatcher II – supervisors, and then I’m next. I am a trainer and handle quality assurance. I’m typically offline doing that, but I am still fully certified to work in the [dispatch] room [to take calls], and I do work in the room a lot. I still pick up overtime shifts, and I can work at the desk as a supervisor or a dispatcher. The reason I do that is to stay relevant with what I’m quality assuring, because I think you need to know how to do the job to be able to do that. So, I still work at the desk very often.

Robert: Public Safety Dispatcher I, I am also a Communications Training Officer (CTO).

Can you share a brief high-level description of your job?

Robert: The workload is distributed between a fire and police pod. Both pods consist of two telecommunicators and split the workload equally between them. Our regional center currently serves six communities which translates to twelve police and fire departments to dispatch. Typically, the fire dispatchers are the primary call takers for 9-1-1 and all dispatchers rotate through taking business line calls. Every shift has a minimum of one supervisor to manage the shift and to help during incidents or to cover breaks.

How long have you been in your current role, and how long have you been in the industry?

Katrina: I’ve been in my current role for four years, and I’m going on my eleventh year of dispatch, and I’ve been at my agency for ten years. The agency opened ten years ago next month.

Robert: I have been in the industry for ten years. I started my career in public safety in January of 2013 for the Security Department of Le Moyne College in Syracuse, NY working as a dispatcher and a shuttle driver. From there I started working as a police dispatcher at Boston College Police Department in Chestnut Hill, MA in March of 2019. I left Boston College and started my current position at North Shore Regional 9-1-1 in Middleton, MA in January of 2021.

What made you get into this line of work?

Katrina: So, I originally wanted to be a police officer— I was a criminal justice and sociology major. But I dislocated my knee while I was taking the police test, so I had to have surgery. At the time, I was working at my college police department as an intern, and they’re like, why don’t you just stay in dispatch for the summer so you have work, and you can put your leg up and it’d be fine.

I ended up working dispatch and I loved it. It was just exciting, and it was challenging. I had no idea at all that that’s what dispatchers did before [working there], because my college dispatch department not only dispatched for the college, but a few surrounding towns, so I got to kind of get a feel of it. And once I was in, I thought it was awesome. I did end up becoming a reserve police officer later, so I still got the police officer bug out of me, but I ended up loving dispatch and how challenging it was.

Robert: I have always been drawn to a career where I get to interact with and help people. Pursuing a career in public safety always seemed like a natural fit. I initially started working as a telecommunicator to prepare myself for a career in law enforcement. However, the longer I worked as a dispatcher the more I grew fond of the work and found that I truly enjoyed working in communications.

Can you describe a typical day in the life of your role?

Katrina: Typically, I come in and the first thing I do is call reviews. At our agency, we do call reviews for EMD calls, for call taking of police and fire calls, and then we also do QA calls for dispatch. In my role, I’ll either do the quality assurance myself or I’ll delegate them to supervisors. I’m also in charge of training, so I have to make sure everyone’s certifications are up to date. In my calendar I keep track of when someone’s certification is expiring. I also am part of a lot of associations, like APCO Atlantic. I’m the training committee chair, so sometimes day-to-day would involve doing things for them. I’m the training chair for the Massachusetts Communications Supervisor Association too, so I’ll also be doing stuff for them. I also do their newsletter. So, day to day really depends on what’s going on, but it’s a lot of balancing the QA, training and association stuff. And also, if the [dispatch] room is busy, they’ll call and ask me to come in and help them

Robert: A typical day for me lasts 10-16 hours. Typically, I work a large amount of overtime and often work more than a usual eight-hour shift. My primary schedule is based upon evenings (16:00 to 00:00). This schedule follows a rotating 4-2 model. If I am assigned a trainee for the shift, I will be assigned to whatever discipline the trainee is currently working on. If I am not assigned a trainee, then my assignment for the shift will depend upon current activity and structure of the out-going shift. The goal is to rotate between police and fire positions every shift so that a dispatcher is not stuck on a certain discipline for too long.

What do you like or enjoy most about your role?

Katrina: I like that I still get to dispatch and do what I initially loved so much, but now it’s elevated. I get to feel like I’ve moved up the ladder, so to speak, and I also just really enjoy training. I love seeing when someone has that click moment, they’re not getting it, and then suddenly everything lines up and they’re able to perform the job or they have a realization of what’s going on. So, I really enjoy being able to teach people and harness the skill of dispatching. It’s a very specific group that can do it because of multitasking and the handling of crisis and everything. I like being able to welcome the next generation of dispatchers.

Robert: What I enjoy most about my role is the chaos. I have always found myself able to perform well under pressure, with a timeline or amongst chaos. Constantly, callers are experiencing the worst day of their lives and we play a large role in that story. Telecommunicators may only interact with the caller for a short amount of time, but the telecommunicator plays an essential part in getting that caller the help they need. I take a lot of pride and satisfaction from being able to help people in those situations.

How do you define success in your role?

Katrina: I guess it would be the success of the team. So, if the team itself is successful and they’re getting quality training and they’re up to date on their certifications, it shows me that I’m doing well in my role. If there’s a mistake made on a call, the very first thing I say is, it’s not necessarily a mistake. It may be a training issue because you might just need a refresh or maybe we didn’t train on it enough. If the mistake continues to be made even after, then okay, then it may be an individual error. But otherwise, I always look at, is our training manual missing it? Is our initial training missing it? And I always use it as a learning opportunity to get better.

Robert: I personally define success as when everyone goes home safely. No responders got hurt and we ended the shift for the most part in the same shape we started it. I consider that a successful night.

What are some of the challenges of your role?

Katrina: I guess keeping organized and being flexible. Because I could come in and for example, right now we’re a P33 accredited agency through APCO. It’s a big lift to have to go through that. It takes months. So right now, I’m doing the recertification, which is like redoing the whole process over again. I’m working on that every day, and then I have to be able to jump in and go help the room and then come back to what I’m doing. There’s a lot of prioritizations, a lot of organization, and making sure I keep things straight, and then also just keeping up everyday activities. So, I’m working on that project, my everyday QA, and also still being pulled into the room. And I’m sort of like the go to. “There’s a supervisor, Katrina. She just knows the answer to everything.” They’ll ask me, “Where’s the random lockbox code for this? “And I just know where it is because I saw it once or whatever. Not a photographic memory by any means, but I like to challenge myself and be the investigative type. I always want to know where everything is.

And something someone said to me when I was first hired, way back when in my college department, “you don’t need to know the answer to everything, but you need to know how to find the answer to everything.” So, I’ve always had that as my model.

Do either of you have any inspirational, interesting, or surprising stories you can share?

Katrina: I guess one of the ones that sticks out to me is probably from seven or eight years ago. A 13-year-old girl had run away from home, and we didn’t know anything about where she was, what she was wearing, nothing. Her foster parents couldn’t really give us a description, so I just said, “Do you have her cell phone number?”
“Yeah, here it is. But we’ve called her a hundred times. She’s not going to answer.”

I decided to call her, and she actually answered. Then I had this 13-year-old girl on the phone, no mapping, because I called her, and the claim was that she was suicidal. So, I also had that in the back of my head. I was able to talk to her for 45 minutes while she was lost in the woods. Just kind of trying to get information, but also trying to build a rapport. I talked to her about music that she liked and what kind of friends she had at school – things like that.

I was trying to balance that rapport building versus investigative. Where are you? Are you actually trying to harm yourself? Like trying to get all those sorts of questions. And those kinds of calls are one of my favorites. Not because of the horrible things that are happening, but I like to feel like I’ve made a difference. And I felt like through my question asking, I was able to get a good product for the responders, meaning as much info as we could. And then for her, I was trying to distract her from the issues going on in her life that were making her feel like this. I always think about that call and how I made a difference that day.

Is there any advice that you’d give to somebody who’s new to or considering entering a similar role to you?

Katrina: Kind of what I said before – you don’t need to know the answer to everything, but you need to know how to find the answer to everything. And I always tell new dispatchers that they really have to be able to bend and flex. You may never have handled a certain call before, but you’ve probably handled calls like it, so you need to know how to put them together. For example, you may have never handled a snake bite call before, but you’ve probably handled an animal call before and you’ve probably handled some sort of injury call before. So, you need to take what you know about it, put it together to mash it all up. And the whole job is about very quick decision making, but you have to make good decisions. You can’t just make them on a whim. You have to go with the training, knowledge, skills and abilities you have and make the best decision you can at that moment.

Robert: My advice to someone who is considering becoming a telecommunicator would be to research the job, not just watch the media’s portrayal of 9-1-1. The person should look into what 9-1-1 telecommunicators do and see what is actually involved with real life emergency communications work. If possible, see if the person can do a sit along with their local 9-1-1 PSAP to get a real feel of what it’s like to answer 9-1-1 calls and dispatch first responders to emergencies.

North Shore Regional Group

What do you think makes your team or agency special or unique?

Robert: Something that makes our agency unique is that our team is made up of various employees from all different kinds of backgrounds and perspectives which helps to better serve our communities.

Katrina: I think we have a great team made up of a range of different personalities and skills. And we have people that come in and they love public safety, and they want to be police officers or firefighters but they end up staying and become dispatchers. And we have people that come in and have no knowledge of public safety at all. They’re completely green and we’re able to sort of mold them and get them all to be able to work together. We work in pods, like a police pod and a fire pod. So, teamwork is really important to us, and I think we have a great sense of teamwork and camaraderie. People really help each other out on the calls or they’ll notice someone’s busy and they’ll jump in and just help. I think it’s great that they don’t even have to say, I need help. They just know when they need it. They can tell from the sound of their voice or how fast they’re typing on the keyboard. They might need some extra help.

Do you have any passions or ambitions outside of work that you want to share?

Katrina: I don’t really have time for anything extra, but I love going on vacation or planning vacations. And also event planning. I always say, if there was some sort of job that combined dispatching and event planning, that would be like my niche. I love to plan my kid’s birthday parties or events or things like that. And I have helped some 9-1-1 scholarship fundraisers and stuff like that.

Robert: I love to travel. A bucket list item of mine is to visit all 50 U.S. States. I am very fortunate that my work schedule allows me to balance work life with my desire to travel and visit new places.

Do you have somebody that inspires you and why?

Katrina: It would be from the very beginning when I started to work here, our operations manager, Leanne Delp. She is someone that’s worked her way up through 9-1-1. She started as a dispatcher and she’s now an APCO adjunct instructor. And she really took me under her wing and sort of showed me that there’s more to 9-1-1 than just being a frontline dispatcher and there’s a reason to stay and there is upward movement. She encouraged me to teach, and I’m an instructor now, so she’s really helped me see that I’m capable of more than I thought I was.

Is there anything specific that you’d like the public to know about your role or your industry?

Katrina: I’d like the public to know when they call 9-1-1, we’re asking the questions we ask for a reason. We’re not just delaying the help getting there. Many times, while we’re asking those questions, our partners already sent the help. And those questions we’re asking are just to help the responders be prepared for what they’re going to encounter on scene. It’s not like the TV shows where we have an exact pinpoint of your location. We’re asking your location so that we can verify where you are or maybe your cell phone service isn’t great so we can’t tell on the map. But we’re asking those questions because we’re trained to for a reason, and it’s all to help benefit you and a final product of getting you the help you need.

Robert: The best piece of knowledge I’d like the public to know is that 9-1-1 is always here to provide help. Sometimes callers second guess themselves or delay in calling because they don’t necessarily believe their situation constitutes an emergency, or the caller doesn’t want to bother responders. If you, the caller, feel that a situation requires a response or should be assessed by first responders then don’t hesitate to contact 9-1-1.

What do you hope will be different for someone in your role 10 years from now?

Katrina: I guess in general, for the 9-1-1 industry or anyone in the role, would be for 9-1-1 dispatchers to be reclassified as first responders and to have respect from the public, because a lot of the public doesn’t even realize that we’re not considered essential or first responders. Most states retirement systems clarify us as clerical. I know in Massachusetts we’re considered clerical, and we have the same retirement as librarians. So, I guess just more respect for the 9-1-1 profession and having that outcome be better retirement, better benefits, better pay.

If you had to describe your job in one word, what would it be?

Katrina: The first word that comes to mind is chaos, but if I was going to add a second word, it’d be organized chaos. But I guess chaos just because it’s so crazy every day and you never know what you’re going to get. But it’s my kind of chaos, I guess.

Check out more of the Day in the Life series here.


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