ST MARYS — From the time she was little, Rose Ehrensberger of St. Marys wanted to be a telephone operator. For 36 years now, she has been a comforting voice on the other end of the phone when someone calls 911.
This week is National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, recognized the second week of April each year. The week-long event celebrates and thanks those who dedicate their lives to serving the public, according to the NPSTW website.
Ehrensberger started working as a secretary in the security department at Penn State Behrend while she was a student there, she said, and also did factory work and was employed at a convenience store. When she delivered flowers, she learned local streets and towns, before taking a dispatching job with Elk County Control in 1984.
At first, Ehrensberger was overwhelmed, and thought there was no way she could answer all the ECC calls. Right off the bat, though, she loved the position.
“It was all pencil and paper, no computer screens,” she said. “We learned from a bookcase of binders.”
There is a lot more to the job now, Ehrensberger says, since dispatchers take calls from nine counties today. She is now the Quality Assurance supervisor with the Elk County Office of Emergency Services, has taken Critical Incident Stress Management training and still answers 911 calls.
“Even to this day, I learn something new every day,” she said.
It’s important to remember “you can’t save them all,” Ehrensberger notes of the horrific phone calls she has experienced. She has a good support system at home, too, being her husband is a paramedic and firefighter, and has experienced similar situations.
“I’ve talked to people who were very scared; I’ve prayed with people,” she said. “You talk to them and help them get through. Sometimes, dispatchers have been through something similar, and it helps them have compassion.”
She can recall answering a call about an attempted suicide situation. The man lived, and she now has a close bond with him.
Ehrensberger now passes on her decades of knowledge and stories to training dispatchers.
“I try to give them the love of the career, and the things I learned in CISM (training),” she said.
Elk and Cameron counties have “amazing” first responders, Ehrensberger adds, as well as elected officials who have been proactive for emergency services.
“People don’t see us — we are the unseen heroes,” she says of telecommunicators.
Elk County Emergency Services has an average of 15 dispatchers, Ehrensberger said. There is always a need for them, nationwide.
Ehrensberger reflected on how many phone calls were answered the day after the Ridgway flood in 2014.
“It takes a special person,” she said. “You get a feeling of self accomplishment from it. I enjoy coming here, every day.”