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Jon Ortiz

The State Worker: All in a day's work for CHP dispatcher Annie Bernal

Published: Thursday, Apr. 11, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Thursday, Apr. 11, 2013 - 7:57 am

Confused and frightened, Brian called 911 on Monday and reached California Highway Patrol dispatcher Annie Bernal.

"I'm on a bus," Brian said, "and there's no drinking water."

"Where are you?" Bernal asked. "Where are you coming from?"

"Los Angeles. I don't know where I am. I'm scared."

Then: "Can you send somebody to pull the bus over? I really need water."

The odd exchange was just one of the 15,000 or so calls that come each week to the CHP's Rancho Cordova center, one of 25 statewide.

Bernal, recently voted Dispatcher of the Year by her 60 dispatcher colleagues there, handles each call with a calm get-the-facts demeanor shaped by more than six years in a job both long-distance and intimate, momentous and mundane.

"I remember taking a call after a guy walked in front of a car on Interstate 80. Possible suicide attempt," she said during a recent interview at the CHP center.

The man was hit, both legs crudely amputated.

"I could hear him moaning in the background," Bernal recalled.

The caller said she had parked her car next to him to shield him. Other drivers made tourniquets with their belts. Suffering and nobility juxtaposed.

Then the toughest part: hanging up and taking the next call.

"There's not a lot of closure sometimes," she said.

The Journal of Traumatic Stress reported last year that dispatchers are at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder. The most disturbing calls include those concerning a child's unexpected injury or death, followed by suicidal callers, officer-involved shootings and an adult's unexpected death.

Bernal acknowledged the work can be stressful, but she feels calmer now than when she started her career.

The secret? A little healthy emotional distance.

"I just think about how I'm really lucky that I don't have to go through what these people go through," she said.

It also helps to keep a sense of humor.

"So there was a guy who called in after doing a drug deal," Bernal said.

"The dealer shorted him $10 change. The guy wanted us to go out and arrest the drug dealer for theft."

Not long after that story, another call came in.

"I want to know if you could run my name for an outstanding warrant," the caller said. "I don't believe I do, but I want to be sure."

Bernal explained that she couldn't give that information over the phone and suggested checking with local authorities.

"Yeah, I did that," the caller said, "but they want me to come in."

And so it goes. In a hour-long stretch on Monday, Bernal took calls for everything from a stolen motorcycle to a fender bender.

And that call from Brian?

"Let the bus driver know you're thirsty," she advised. "But, Brian, I can't send someone to stop the bus."

Brian said he'd do that and hung up.

Seconds later, Bernal took another call.

Call The Bee's Jon Ortiz, (916) 321-1043. Follow him on Twitter @thestateworker and read his blog, The State Worker.

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About The State Worker

Jon Ortiz The Author

Jon Ortiz launched The State Worker blog and a companion column in 2008 to cover state government from the perspective of California government employees. Every day he filters the news through a single question: "What does this mean for state workers?" Join Ortiz for updates and debate on state pay, benefits, pensions, contracts and jobs. Contact him at (916) 321-1043 and at jortiz@sacbee.com.

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Note: The State Worker blog switched blog platforms in October 2013. All posts after the switch are found here. Older posts are available using the list below.


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