TOWNSEND — Diane Babineau, a senior telecommunicator for the Townsend Communications Department, has a busy beat that covers police, fire and ambulance services and fields mutual aid ambulance calls from several surrounding communities, from southern New Hampshire to Groton.
She’s been a dispatcher in town since 1983, after five years in a similar position in Longboat Key, Fla.
Babineau, who grew up in Fitchburg and now lives just over the state line in Brookline, N.H., has quick-on-the draw reaction time, multi-tasking skills and a low-key, common sense demeanor.
She was one of 11 dispatchers across the state to receive the first-ever 9-1-1 Honors Award, during an awards ceremony at Mechanics Hall in Worcester in April.
According to a press release issued by Townsend Chief of Police Erving Marshall Jr., who is also the town’s director of communications, Babineau was nominated by the Statewide Emergency Telecommunications Board for “dedication and service to citizens of the commonwealth.”
Marshall said Babineau did everything by the book when an “infant not breathing” call came in.
“Diane maintained her composure through repeated, emotional pleas for help,” he said. She dispatched needed resources to the scene within the first 14 seconds, then kept the caller on the line for another four minutes and 53 seconds, Marshall said, giving first aid instructions while waiting for help to arrive.
The caller was frantic, Babineau recalled, and that “panic had set in.”
But Babineau said she didn’t do anything extraordinary, just her job.
Quoted in a recent Townsend Times story, Marshall said it takes a “certain personality to handle the stress and the emotions” that go with the job. “I don’t think they (people who work in the Communications Department) get the credit they deserve,” he said.
Given the data required by the job and the diversity of calls, Babineau’s ability to roll through the unexpected speaks to character, which may be as important to job performance as the ABCs learned in training.
Some might call it grace under fire. Babineau put it in simpler terms: “It’s different every day.”
Although she didn’t say so, her experience as a long-distance truck driver, with an itinerary that stretched across the contiguous United States, Canada and Mexico, may help to explain her seemingly unflappable, matter-of-fact temperament.
Dispatchers are trained and recertified every two years, but the unknown element scares some people. Babineau said she’s seen novices change and turn away before they start.
Take, for example, the high-tech gadgets she has to operate and coordinate — from radios and computer screens to a global positioning system (GPS) monitor linked to the emergency 9-1-1 system for tracking incoming calls to their source, pinpointing locations on a street map and providing directions. The array, which resembles the conn of an imaginary space ship, looks intimidating but Babineau manipulates it with the ease of a seasoned pro.
The machinery, that was relatively silent during a recent interview, may suddenly burst into a simultaneous tumult of beeps, blinks and crackling voices talking at once, she said. The dispatcher at the remote helm, when pandemonium erupts, must make the right moves, she said. And that means more than just knowing which buttons to push.
Tale the art of triage, for example. The medical phrase translates well in communications terms because the concept is the same: Knowing where to direct a call based on its nature and the available array of services. In a life-threatening emergency, such as the one Babineau was honored for handling so well, confidence over the phone is key.
She’s talked people through everything from cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to the Heimlich maneuver, Babineau said, and has determined whether advanced life support (ALS) is needed on the ambulance. Not usually for a broken wrist, for example, but always for an apparent heart attack or acute asthma.
The only shaky moments are when someone in distress calls her by name, she said. That makes it personal and more difficult, but she adjusts quickly, she said.
Once, a good friend found a parent dead on the couch and called 9-1-1 on her shift. Comfort had to come later; duty first. That call is a somber memory, she said.
A dispatcher sitting in the rolling chair at the front desk of the Townsend police station — as Babineau does on the 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift several days a week — must be ready to switch gears on cue, greeting visitors who come in and fielding calls over the phone.
“I didn’t realize it meant doing so many things at the same time,” said dispatcher-in-training Ryan Monahan. Even more telling is that Monahan has experienced it from the other end, as a firefighter and EMT in his New Hampshire town.
Dispatchers must be able to filter static, process information and respond appropriately. On that day in August 2004, when an infant had stopped breathing, Babineau kept a distraught caller on the line for nearly five minutes until emergency crews arrived.
That was a short period, in real time, but Monahan said that in a situation like that, waiting for five clock minutes to pass can seem like an eternity.