For many people who land in 9-1-1, emergency communications becomes a life-long career. Such is the case for the 2017 PSAPs’ Finest Line Supervisor of the Year,
Heather Barker, Communications Supervisor for the Orange County Sheriff’s Office (in Winter Park, Florida). Barker’s storied career in public safety communications started over 31 years ago at the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office Communications Center. During those three-plus decades she has worked virtually every position one can work in public safety communications – as a 9-1-1 Operator, a Teletype Operator, a Dispatcher, an Assistant Squad Leader (ASL), and most recently, as a Training Supervisor, and Supervisor. Recently Heather explained how she got her start in 9-1-1, what she loves most about her job, and why she’d do it all over again.
What attracted you to a career in public safety communications?
I served my country as a United States Marine when I got out of high school and when I finished that obligation, I struggled with what I wanted to do with my life. I was a communications operator in the Marines but that just entailed processing classified material and there wasn't a big need for that in civilian life. I went to a career counselor and she told me that there was an opening for in communications for the Brevard County Sheriff's Office and I was intrigued. I applied and eventually was hired. To say it was overwhelming at the start would be an understatement; however, I had some amazing mentors and trainers who did not give up on me and didn't let me give up on myself and I never looked back. After 8 years, I decided to move to Orlando and try my hand at the Orange County Sheriff's Office. I went in with the attitude that I knew nothing and I needed to learn from the start. I did not approach things like I knew everything and didn't need to be taught. I think this is a valuable lesson to anyone moving from one agency to another. This also helped me move up from one position to another and within 3 years, I was in supervision, and have never looked back with regret.
What is your most memorable career experience?
The hardest, and undoubtedly the most memorable, moment of my career was working the night of the Pulse nightclub attack on June 12, 2016. This was an inexplicable event that forever changed me. It was a surreal experience and difficult because there was nothing I could do to help either the people calling in or the employees working the event. The call takers and the dispatchers that night are heroes. They never left their seats and worked together as a team to help a sister agency (the Orlando Police Department) and the callers as best they could. This incident was occurring in the city of Orlando and we were the backup agency but because of the magnitude of calls, we took a great deal of incoming calls. I am proud to say that I was part of that and even more proud of them men and women I worked with that night.
What do you most love about what you do?
I enjoy every facet of what I do but my passion is training people so they can learn the ins and outs of the job. This is a deeply satisfying element of the job to watch the "light bulb" come on when someone understands they can do the job, especially when they didn't have a clue at the beginning. There is no better feeling for me as a trainer. As a supervisor, I like to see my squad be all they can be. I like to help them either answer incoming lines or take a radio channel here and there (I don't do that one as much anymore).
What advice would you have for others thinking about a similar career path?
As far as advice for someone starting out in this career, I would say be prepared for a bumpy ride. You will never take the same call twice and you need to be prepared for anything. Remember, people are not calling because they are happy or want to congratulate you. They are calling at some of the worst moments of their lives and you need to understand that they may take that out on you. You don't have to be abused; however, you need to recognize frustration is not abuse. Learn from your co-workers and don't be afraid to ask for help. Emergency communications is definitely a team environment. Remember...there is no "I" in "team!"
What does it mean to be recognized with a PSAP's Finest Award?
What an unexpected honor it was to hear that I was selected as the Line Supervisor of the Year for 2017. I never dreamed 31 years ago that my career would be within this field. I would not have changed a thing though. I have met and worked with some incredible people and experienced things that some only read about or watch on the television shows (fact so far outweighs fiction!).
Nominations are now open for the 2018 PSAPs' Finest Awards
Know someone you'd like to nominate for a PSAPs' Finest award? Nominations for
2018 PSAPs' Finest Awards are now open. You can submit a nomination in any of these seven categories: Director, Line Supervisor, Technician, Trainer, Telecommunicator,
Innovator, and PSAP of the Year.
Since its inaugural year, the PSAPs' Finest Awards program has recognized more than fifty deserving individuals employed in the field of emergency communications. Winners are selected by an independent judging panel from the 9-1-1 community, which evaluates the nominees based on their professionalism, accomplishments, and service to their communities. Learn more by visiting the PSAPs' Finest Award program website here: