Hello, 911: Dispatcher Ricky Variara

911 Dispatcher Ricky Variara, senior communications operator for the Westchester County Department of Emergency Service in Valhalla.

What exactly does a 911 dispatcher do?
We answer calls to determine the exact nature of an emergency in order to dispatch the appropriate response. Plus we give callers pre-arrival instruction—on everything from administering CPR to delivering a baby—and we keep track of them until first responders arrive.

What kind of training do you have?
I am certified to administer first aid and CPR and have completed a specialized course in emergency medical dispatch, and I was both a volunteer emergency medical technician and a firefighter.

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Where exactly do you work?
At the Emergency Communications Center in Valhalla.

Tell us about some of the emergencies you’ve handled.
I’ve had everything from exotic pet birds flying out the window, people locking themselves in the bathroom, and automatic fire alarms going off to downed electrical wires in a storm, tractor-trailer spills, and cardiac arrests. And then there’s the kid who ate the silica packet in his
new shoes and the tree cutter who fell out of a tree.

How quickly does help generally arrive?
The dispatcher will get your address within thirty seconds and the nature of the call within a minute, and you’ll receive help within five to fifteen minutes of initiating the call, depending upon where you live.

Have you ever talked someone through delivering a baby?
No, I wish I had, but I’ve never been that fortunate. But I was the shift supervisor when one of the other dispatchers gave instructions to a father delivering his own baby; a healthy baby was born three minutes later, just as the fire department walked in the room.

What’s the most common reason people call 911?
Difficulty breathing, including choking, or anything cardiac related, like chest pains or pains radiating down the arm.

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How does your on-the-job experience compare to the typical 911 scenes shown on TV?
It’s not as dramatic. And because many emergencies shown on TV take place in rural areas where it takes longer for help to arrive, those dispatchers are in a more stressful situation for longer. In a more densely populated area like Westchester, you’re on the phone for three to five minutes on average providing pre-arrival instructions while help is on the way.

Have you ever met any of the people you’ve helped?
No. In my ten years here, I’ve only seen it happen once, to one of the guys who helped someone revive his father with CPR. A couple of months later, they came in to thank him.

What was your most memorable call?
We once had a call in New Rochelle about a cat stuck on the roof of a building. As a joke, the captain of the fire department put it out as an ‘attempted suicide of a feline.’ It was a two-minute thing, but we laughed about it for the whole twelve-hour shift. Humor is an important way we deal with stress.

What do you think about the Michael Jackson 911 call?
Let’s just say I’m glad it happened in LA and not in Westchester.

photo by John rizzo

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