Longest-tenured 911 dispatcher leaves

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 29, 2004

Cindi Alkhatib, senior dispatcher and training officer for the Warren County Emergency 911 Dispatch Center, poses Wednesday on her last day at the center following 13 years of service.(Brian Loden The Vicksburg Post)

[7/29/04}The longest-tenured emergency dispatcher in Warren County left her post in Vicksburg Wednesday, but she expects she’ll have a hard time with a planned career change.

Cindi McKay Alkhatib whose 18 years of continuous dispatching began with the Warren County Sheriff’s Department in 1986 and continued when the county’s consolidated E-911 Dispatch Center opened in 1991 is moving to Minnesota due to her husband’s job.

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Here, she had already begun studying to become a paralegal. In Minnesota, she’ll continue those studies, but admits she knows change isn’t easy for emergency dispatchers.

“They need that adrenaline after a while,” she said, adding that she may seek 911 work while taking other courses.

Alkhatib, 39, is also the only dispatcher to have been with one of the state’s busiest centers since its inception.

“There’s almost no call that I haven’t heard before,” she said. “And that helps because when you start out everything’s new, but by the time that you’ve been here as long as I have it’s very rare that you get a call that you’ve never gotten before and you always learn from experience, and/or mistakes, however you want to list it.

“The best learning experience is a mistake but we’ve been lucky enough that we don’t have that many.”

The center’s director for the past three years, Allen Maxwell, said he and the rest of the center’s staff are much better-off for having worked with Alkhatib.

“We’re obviously sad she’s leaving, but on the other hand, times like this come for all organizations,” Maxwell said. “We’re fortunate she’s been able to train, directly or indirectly, virtually every dispatcher.”

“It’s going to leave a big hole here, because she’s our go-to kind of person” for many different types of problems, Maxwell said.

Alkhatib helped write the center’s manual of standard operating procedures. She has also served as its training coordinator, scheduling and tracking the 48 hours of off-site training required of each dispatcher every three years.

The next-most-senior member of the staff, 11-year dispatcher, Peggy Wright, said she will be taking over those duties.

“Cindi trained me,” Wright said, adding that dispatchers who work together as long as the two have are like “family.”

Another dispatcher, Lisa Buchanan, and her 8-year-old daughter, Kristen, dropped by the center in the courthouse basement to give Alkhatib a going-away present on her last day at work.

“We don’t have a lot of contact with people outside of here like we used to,” Alkhatib said. “For instance, working at the sheriff’s office you see the deputies coming in and you see the office staff. Whereas here if you don’t already know the person or if they don’t stop by, which a lot of the deputies do not, you never really get to build any relationship other than over the phone or over the radio.”

Alkhatib was honored with a courthouse reception Monday that included a cake decorated with the E-911 badge and speeches by Maxwell, county volunteer-firefighter coordinator Kelly Worthy, Sheriff Martin Pace, emergency-management office director L.W. “Bump” Callaway, fellow dispatcher Rena Williams and a letter from Mayor Laurence Leyens, she said.

One of the most difficult calls Alkhatib remembered was one where a man threatened suicide.

“I had to stay on the phone with him for like 30 minutes, and the whole time he was threatening suicide and he didn’t want to hear it, you know, and it’s very stressful to deal with that,” she said.

One of the best experiences she had with a call was when she helped a mother save a choking baby.

“You give the Heimlich maneuver instructions and you can hear that baby start crying and you know when you hear it cry that it’s breathing,” she said, adding that she had handled at least two such calls. “It doesn’t happen very often, but I can remember being on my knees on the floor with one of them, because I was praying along with the mama, you know what I’m saying? And it worked.”

The average tenure for a dispatcher nationwide is about two years, Alkhatib said. The stretches of sitting ready to answer a call, punctuated by the bursts of rapid and urgent communication inherent in the function, can contribute both to its stress and its appeal, she added.

“I just enjoy helping people,” she said. “If I can answer that phone and help that person really help somebody in a true emergency that’s what makes it worth it for me.”