Antelope’s Center High School trains students to handle emergency calls

“Ring, ring.”

Taylor Andreasen took the call. Someone had found a decomposing body. She flipped through her police protocol cards asking question after question.

Tiara Graves took a call about 15 “middle-age” loiterers in red vests. Emily Utterback took a call from a man hiding from burglars in a closet.

They are part of the Center High School Dispatch Program, a unique two-year track that turns students into certified emergency dispatchers by the time they graduate high school. It is perhaps the most comprehensive such program available at any high school or community college, said Shawn Messinger, a police consultant at Priority Dispatch Corp.

“These kids are getting access to a level of training that professional 911 centers have been using for almost 34 years,” he said.

The Center High School students hunched over their computers Thursday under a banner that declared, “What we learn today will save lives.” Each student diligently typed in the information given by each caller.

Students train specifically for fast-paced, higher-stress 911 dispatching, said teacher Holland Myers, 58. But the program also prepares students for jobs at lower-stress call centers like those used for retail sales, the electric or gas company, or automobile services like AAA.

Messinger, whose company offers products and training to dispatch centers, arranged for the donation of curriculum, manuals and flip-card sets to the class through the nonprofit International Academies of Emergency Dispatch. He said students in the Center High program are less likely to “drop out or wash out” when they take a job as a dispatcher.

The program is an anomaly in an era of reductions that have severely impacted high school vocational education programs across the state. Center High School has shuttered its auto shop, culinary arts program and all but one class of wood shop, according to Myers. The lack of vocational education is particularly dire at a school where Myers said only about 20 percent of students go on to graduate from college.

“If they want to go to college, they have to have something to make money, and it’s not McDonald’s,” he said.

Dispatchers can earn $38,000 to $47,000 a year before overtime, as well as retirement, health benefits and paid vacation, Myers said. He said the amount often approaches $62,000 because of overtime.

“For someone out of high school, that’s remarkable money,” he said.

Word of the program is spreading, resulting in the transfer of 10 new students to the Antelope school since last school year – a feat usually reserved for schools with Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate college-prep tracks. The Center High School dispatcher program currently has 60 juniors and seniors in two classes.

Students graduating from the Center High School program can receive certification in CPR, use of an automated external defibrillator and emergency technician work. They also can receive emergency, police, fire and medical certifications and are prepared to take the general aptitude test necessary to obtain jobs at dispatch centers. Applicants usually are also required to take psychological and drug tests and go through a background check.

Utterback is excited about the prospect of earning the certifications, which she says will give her an upper hand when competing for jobs. Although the senior ultimately wants to be a probation officer, Utterback said she needs a part-time dispatching job to help pay her way through college.

Myers decided to start the program three years ago after listening to his wife, Janice Parker, complain about how difficult it was to train and keep new dispatchers at the Sacramento Regional Fire communications center, where she works in human resources.

The Center High School Dispatch Program graduated its first 40 students in June. Since then, one student has taken a job as a dispatcher. Others received offers from Bay Area call centers but declined them, Myers said.

Recruiters from the San Mateo County Office of Public Safety and Communications have asked to come to the school in April to recruit students. “They were salivating when they heard about somebody with a program,” Myers said.

Senior Lorena Valenzuela wants to sign on with San Mateo County after she graduates. Valenzuela says she will attend college to become a veterinarian while working as a dispatcher. “It will help a lot, having this job,” she said. “It’s better than $8 an hour.”

Other students want to go into careers in criminal justice or law enforcement and don’t have any way to pay for the training. A large number of students were recommended to the program by counselors because they lacked direction, Myers said. “The biggest group are students with no purpose or goal before now, because they never had a feeling that they could do anything important,” he said.

Now students in the class talk about saving lives and helping others. “You get adrenaline when you take a call,” Utterback said. “It’s a rush when you help.”