Meet one of the behind-the-scenes heroes of emergency services
When Katherine Wargo picks up the phone at work, she never knows exactly what's on the other end of the call. But there is one thing she can count on: The caller is experiencing one of the most difficult moments of their life.
"They're seeing things that they never thought they would see or experiencing things that they never thought would happen to them," Wargo told us. "And so just answering the phone, having somebody who is calm, cool, collected, who you know is going to get you help ... you hear (relief) instantly in their voice."
Wargo is a 911 emergency dispatcher at the Arlington Heights-based Northwest Central Dispatch System. The center handles an average of 1,677 calls per day for 22 police and fire departments in the Northwest suburbs.
With National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week kicking off Sunday, we asked Wargo about the ups and downs, and challenges and triumphs of life as one of what a suburban police chief calls the behind-the-scenes heroes of emergency services.
"If you talked to any police officer, firefighter or paramedic, I am sure they would all say that we rely on our telecommunicators every day," Lake Zurich Police Chief Steve Husak said. "It is nice to be able to honor and thank the heroes behind the scene."
Keeping calm, with help from Disney
Emergency dispatcher wasn't the obvious career choice for Wargo. She earned her bachelor's degree in history and worked in child care after college. But when she saw a notice about two years ago that the dispatch center was testing job candidates, something clicked.
Thousands of calls later, Wargo says the job is rewarding "each and every day." Rewarding, but not easy.
Keeping calm when the person on the other side of a call is frantic takes plenty of practice.
"We have a lot of different techniques that we use in dispatch, and the biggest thing is taking a deep breath," said Wargo, who lives in Wheeling. "Because you're that lifeline for them, and if you start freaking out, you're going to lose your cool, and you're not going to get the information that you need."
The biggest challenge of the job, though, may be when she's off duty.
"The hardest part about the job is not taking it home," Wargo told us. "Just finding ways to deal with it, because very few people in your life outside of your co-workers really know exactly what you go through.
"But I have a really great support system, with my family and my co-workers. We have a really great peer support program here," she said. "And a lot of Disney music in the car on the way home."
The best part? Getting to help people.
"That's what I signed up for," she said. "I am so thankful I have this job that I get to help people in the capacity that I do. For each of those bad calls, there are a plethora of amazing calls and calls where you know that you were that calm voice for that person."
The Lake County state's attorney's and sheriff's offices teamed up to mark Lake County Senior Week by sending out a set of warning signs that you may be on the receiving end of a scam phone call.
Seniors, the pair noted, are the most frequent victims of phone scams.
"Sheriff (John Idleburg) and I are committed to protecting the residents of Lake County from those who would take advantage during an economic and health crisis," State's Attorney Eric Rinehart said in the release. "More than ever, we need to spread the word to our older residents and hold these criminals responsible for financially targeting people during these difficult times."
So, what are the signs? For starters, legitimate companies and government entities never ask for payment with gift cards. Seniors also should be wary of anyone asking you to download an unknown program to your computer, or provide personal information and credit card info over the phone.
"Scammers have become unbelievably good at making their victims believe they are conducting legitimate business, and they often prey on the most vulnerable," Idleburg said.
Some other advice: Don't tell callers when you leave your residence; do document the number you were called from, and any information about the call; report suspicious calls to your local law enforcement agency as soon as possible; if you are unsure of a caller's identity, ask for their name and callback number, then hang up and verify the information via the internet or telephone book; and if a caller asks for someone who isn't home, simply say that person can't come to the telephone, as opposed to informing the caller you could be home alone.
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