San Diego, California - When Benny Hernandez was hired by the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department to answer emergency calls in 1979, they were doing things very differently.

All information was hand written on a card, time-stamped and then placed in racks to be handed over to U.S. Navy radio chiefs who would then dispatch the calls out to deputies in the field.

Now, sheriff’s dispatchers use a computer-aided dispatch system. They are cross-trained to answer 911 and non-emergency calls and work radios, dispatching calls for service. When working the radio, a dispatcher has assigned deputies -- which can range from about 40 to more than 90 units in a special law enforcement detail. But if the computers were to go down, dispatchers are trained to go back to the card system.

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department gets more than 620,000 calls for 911 and non-emergency calls for law enforcement, fire and emergency medical aid every year. That averages out to about 1,700 calls a day.

Hernandez says the job can get his adrenaline going.

“The hardest part of this job is trying to keep up with the calls and the radio traffic,” he said.

Hernandez, 57, is the department’s most senior emergency services dispatcher and he was voted Dispatcher Employee of the Year by the Sheriff’s Communications Division Wednesday for his nearly 37 years of service.

He has seen heard and seen a lot in that time, and many of those calls were tragic. Some of the most vivid calls he helped with were the ones from the 2003 and 2007 wildfires and the two separate school shootings in 2001. He recalled that during the shootings, he didn’t handle the main call, but the whole floor erupted with calls from parents of students, all trying to get information about their child.

The advent of cell phones has been an issue for dispatchers. When people call in on landline phones, an address automatically pops up for dispatchers. Now,  so many people call from mobile phones and all dispatchers get initially is a cell tower. He said people sometimes call screaming for help, then hang up and there is no way to pinpoint them. Dispatchers call back, but sometimes the people don’t answer. So, then dispatchers try to get subscriber information to help find the callers, but that takes valuable time when they could be sending out a response. 

“We need your location. That’s one of the problems with a cellular call,” he said.

Hernandez works days now but used to work the midnight shift for much of his career. Despite the often stressful calls, Hernandez said he has worked with a lot of really good people and that has made it all worth it. He is retiring in the summer but said he may find some other work.

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors honored Sheriff’s dispatchers with a proclamation for this week as part of National Telecommunications Week. In accepting the proclamation for the dispatchers, Sheriff Bill Gore called dispatchers the “hardest working people in public safety” and said that in addition to helping the public “they serve on a daily basis as their lifeline for deputy sheriffs.”

The recognition for the dispatchers includes a visit from San Diego Chargers players on Thursday. Chargers players Tight End John Phillips(#83), Chargers Defensive Tackle Sean Lissemore (#98) visit Sheriff's Dispatch Supervisors Monica Frazier and Becky Straham, 3-month-old Nathan La Fuze, and Jamie La Fuze with Chargers Tackle Mike Harris (#79).