BY COLLEEN SPARKS
At night, when many people are at home unwinding after work, Spencer Jaeckel of Chandler is on high alert, responding to 911 calls made to the Gilbert Police Department.
Jaeckel, 27, is a 911 operator, meaning he answers calls from residents about domestic violence, burglaries, assaults and other potentially life-threatening crimes.
He also handles calls about less-urgent issues, including illegally parked vehicles, traffic accidents and even cats stuck in trees.
As part of the police department’s communications division of almost 30 people housed on East Civic Center Drive, he answers 911 emergency calls and non-emergency calls on the department’s business line.
Jaeckel’s mission is to find out the nature and location of emergencies within the first 30 seconds of a call. He earns $23 an hour and often works overtime.
When answering the business line, he answers calls that are not emergencies, including ones from officers asking to get transferred to the detention center or seeking help in tracking down informa-tion.
Jaeckel, who’s worked as a 911 call taker at Gilbert Police Department for three years, enjoys trying to help people with a variety of needs on the phone. He got his start as a 911 call taker working for the North East King County Regional Public Safety Communication Agency (NORCOM) for about two and a half years.
“No day is the same,” Jaeckel said. “You never know what could come in.
“It can go from busy to calm,” he added. “It’s like predicting weather.”
He said he answers about 100 calls during a shift. Jaeckel usually works from noon to 10 p.m. Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, but he’s also worked overnight, from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. to 4 a.m.
“I kind of like nights,” he said. “I’m nocturnal-ish.”
Coffee and his enthusiasm for the job keep him fueled as he calmly asks questions, selecting from one of about 200 different categories and inputting names, addresses and important details about an incident into a computer. On another screen, Jaeckel navigates a map, pinpointing the location of an incident as closely as he can.
The information on incidents goes to police officers’ laptop computers in their vehicles. But a dispatcher looks at what Jaeckel has input, and contacts the officers on their radios to tell them where to respond to issues, as it would be unsafe for officers to look at their computers while driving.
During one recent night shift, Jaeckel calmly got information from a teenager on the run from his home, fearing his life was in danger. The teen claimed to be running away from a family member.
Jaeckel asked how the teen felt threatened and whether the family member had a weapon, finding out where the teen was located and where the family member was when the incident started. While he gathered information, officers went to the home where the teen’s family member had been to find the teen, who claimed he had found a safe place outside and eluded the family member.
Jaeckel also talked to a woman who’d heard noises on her back door and was afraid someone was trying to break in. He told her to take her children upstairs and go inside a room where she could lock the door while waiting for an officer to arrive.
The noise ended up being a neighbor who was knocking on her door. No one was attempting to break into her home.
Also on a recent night, Jaeckel talked to a woman who wanted an adult family member whom she claimed attacked her out of her home. He asked the woman for her name, address, and the name of the attacker and reassured her that police were on their way to the home.
Jaeckel also took calls that same night about a suspicious person in a park, a possible domestic violence incident overheard by a neighbor and a possible drug deal.
“The first thing I ask for is (an) address,” he said. “Some people will call and tell a story.
“We’re trained to interrupt and get an address,” Jacekel said. “Once people get in emergency mode and call, sometimes they forget their own address.”
Fortunately for panicked callers, 911 operators can often track their location on a screen, even if they call from a cell phone.
If a crime is in progress, it’s also important to get a description of the suspect and, if they’re in a vehicle, what direction it is heading.
Sometimes Jaeckel will ask people if they hear breaking glass or footsteps in their home and if they have had any problems with neighbors or ex-boyfriends or ex-girlfriends or former spouses.
While Jaeckel said callers often are understandably scared, he tries to stay calm to help them calm down.
“We reassure them we’re coming,” he said. “I’ll say that multiple times.”
Jaeckel said sometimes people will complain police are not arriving quickly enough to handle their incidents.
“I usually tell them, ‘All calls are important, but sometimes we have more calls than officers,’” he said. “It’s life before property.”
Gilbert Police Department’s goal is to respond to “priority level zero” calls, which are serious crimes in progress, within five-and-a-half minutes. In 2015-16, officers responded to those calls in an average of four minutes and 11 seconds, according to the police department’s Fiscal Year 2016 Annual Report.
For “priority level three” calls, in which there’s no concerns about a loss of life, the police department’s goal was to respond within 45 minutes. But Gilbert police reacted to level three calls in 27 minutes and 18 seconds on average, the report said.
Jaeckel said his most stressful call came last April, when there was a huge fire involving about 100 firefighters at an apartment complex under construction. Police had to shut down Warner Road between Lindsay and Gilbert roads and the fire spread to an L.A. Fitness across the street, as well as an occupied apartment complex.
“We got a lot of calls,” Jaeckel said. “People could see the smoke miles and miles away. You could feel the heat.”
Gilbert Police Department dispatcher Lee Youngs said even when things get intense on the job, Jaeckel keeps his cool and makes callers feel comfortable.
“Spencer’s awesome,” Youngs said. “He’s really good with callers. He gets through to them.”
Youngs said their jobs require a lot of focus for long periods of time.
“You’re always super-concentrated,” she said. “In some ways, (Spencer’s job is) harder than what I do because the phones are constantly nonstop.”
Jaeckel said he was “pretty nervous” during his first year as a 911 call taker. Now if he gets stressed, he will take a 15-minute break and walk around. Outside of work, he likes to ride ATVs, work out, read books and watch Netflix.
He hopes to eventually earn a bachelor’s degree in public policy and public service or emergency response and operations at Arizona State University.
Gilbert Police Department 911 operator Spencer Jaeckel juggles many emergency calls.