Local dispatch supervisor awarded 2018 Oklahoma Telecommunicator of the year

When people hear the term first responder their minds often go immediately to law enforcement, firefighters and ambulance personnel. They may not even think about those who could arguably be described as the first first responders — the dispatchers who answer the calls to 911. These men and women speak to callers in various degrees of distress. They simultaneously help the caller while routing emergency crews to their location. 

Dispatch Supervisor Craig Smith, with the Carter County Sheriff’s Dept., was recognized for his stellar service in this field on Tuesday evening when he was awarded the 2018 Oklahoma Telecommunicator of the Year award at the Oklahoma Safety Conference. Out of the hundreds of dispatchers who work in departments all over the state, Smith was chosen because of the way he handled one particular phone call earlier this year.

“On May 1, I had a 67-year-old female call who was having a particularly hard time in her life,” Smith said. “She had a firearm and was trying to take her own life but she could not figure out how to make the firearm work.” After 18 minutes on the phone with Smith, she finally agreed to let deputies come in and take her to get the help she desperately needed.

“When my deputies got there they found a loaded firearm sitting exactly where I told her to put it,” Smith said. “They told me all it would have taken was just her fiddling with it a little bit and she could have done exactly what she was trying to do.”

Carter County Sheriff Chris Bryant was at the ceremony to present the award to Smith, and he said he was happy to see Carter County represented by such an outstanding person.

“I’ve known Craig since 1998, and there is just so much to say about him it’s hard to pinpoint any one thing,” Bryant said. “He’s just a good guy. He’s a great leader who leads by example, and he is dedicated to the citizens of Carter County.”

Smith has been with the sheriff’s department for almost 21 years and said that emotionally charged calls such as the one for which he received his award are not uncommon.

“Every dispatcher who has ever done this for any length of time has calls that stick with them,” Smith said. “There are calls from years ago that I can close my eyes right now and still hear.” He then gave a few examples.

“I once listened to an older women get beaten by some guy who had broken in and was intoxicated,” Smith said. “He kicked in the front door, came inside her house, and she was standing in front of her bedroom door while he was trying to get into her room.

“I told her to just get out of the way and not to stand in front of the door. She told me that she wasn’t going to move because her dogs were in there with her and she didn’t want him to get to her dogs.”

“I had to listen to that man beat the heck out of her, and that’s something I will never forget,” Smith said.

Another incident involved a woman who was trying to help a man who was slicing his wrists with a knife. She had decided her best course of action was to try to get the knife away from the man who then turned the knife on her.

“I listened to that woman on the phone scream bloody murder while she was being stabbed seven times,” Smith said. “The whole time I’m trying my best to get every single person that I can out to that call.” He went on to say that those type of calls tend to haunt your dreams when they aren’t actively keeping you awake.

“I would think that anybody who has done this job for a length of time would say that it’s hard to listen to things like that and get rid of that helpless feeling because you can’t personally be right there,” Smith said. “All I can do is try to get our guys there as quick as I can, and that’s a very hard thing to do. It’s hard to deal with a lot of that stuff.”

Smith said that he is fortunate to work in a relatively small department where he can find some closure in these situations. Because of the department’s smaller size and close connection to the deputies, dispatch often knows the outcome as soon as the officers get finished at the scene. To illustrate this point he told the outcome of the story about the elderly lady.

“My guys got there and arrested the guy,” Smith said. “He then went to the penitentiary for first degree burglary.”

Many larger departments don’t have this luxury and those dispatchers may never find out what happened to the people they were helping. They might not even know who they are sending on location. 

In spite of the emotional nature associated with some of the calls, Smith said he loves his job and enjoys going in to work every day. He said it’s really all about the people he is able to help.

“This is the job that I feel like God put me on earth to do,” Smith said. Situations like the one for which he received his award make everything worthwhile.

“If somebody else had answered that call, it might not have turned out the way it did,” Smith said. “Just being able to take that home with you and lay down at night knowing that you’ve done something to help is why you do this.”