Texas County 911 assistant director Terra Culley holds a copy of her recently published book comprised of entries from the "Dial 911" monthly column series she has been writing for the Houston Herald since July of 2018. Credit: DOUG DAVISON | HOUSTON HERALD

Having been around the occupation for more than two decades, Terra Culley has come to know that 911 dispatchers are far more than just people who answer phones.

Culley began working as a 911 dispatcher in Texas County about 23 years ago, and has been assistant director at Texas County 911 for about four years. In July of 2018, the first installment of her column, “Dial 911,” ran in the Houston Herald, and the monthly series has been a popular fixture ever since.

Culley recently published a book titled, “Beyond the Voice of 911 Dispatch,” that is comprised of 20 versions of her columns. She said her newspaper writings and resulting book are designed to help people understand what 911 dispatchers go through. She does that by using detailed descriptions of call scenarios.

“Most of them are calls that have actually happened in some sense,” Culley said. “There’s way more to it than a dispatcher answering a call, hanging up and then someone appears; they go through all the mental anguish with callers and talk them through it until someone is there with them. They do a lot more than just say, ‘OK, someone is on the way.’ They technically are the first responders on scene with their ears and what they can tell callers.”

Culley said the book came about after a county official and several other people prodded her to create it.

“I gave it a whirl,” she said, “and I think it turned out pretty well. I’ve had a lot of good feedback, and some people have said they wish it was longer.”

People in 911 circles in other states have contacted Culley to express their enjoyment of the book, and some have said they want more. One of Culley’s goals for the book is to enlighten people about Missouri law that labels 911 dispatchers as “clerical” workers.

“They’re still called secretaries for employment purposes,” she said. “That takes away a lot of retirement and employment benefits we could have, similar to what’s available to firefighters, law enforcement and EMS. Dispatchers have to deal with a lot of mental anguish, and PTSD and mental exhaustion are very real.

“Maybe if there is more attention given to what dispatchers do, we can get that changed in Missouri.”

The U.S. Congress is working on the 911 Saves Act that would reclassify 911 dispatching as a protective service occupation.

“Hopefully we can get this taken care of,” Culley said.

Culley’s book is available on Amazon.com and as an e-book. She said her cohorts at Texas County 911 like it and she’s pondering putting together another.

“I really appreciate all the support for the first one,” Culley said. “So many people have said they liked it, and hopefully it sheds some light on what dispatchers go through.”

Doug Davison

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Contact him by phone at 417-967-2000 or by email at ddavison@houstonherald.com.

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