Long standing town police dispatcher promoted

For 28 years, Tammy Paladino has been one of the rotating dozen or so dispatcher voices Southold residents hear after they dial 911 in moments of crisis.

“No two days are ever the same,” the Southold Town police dispatcher said. “We talk to everybody on what they believe is the worst day of their life.”

On March 12, the Southold Town Board voted to promote Ms. Paladino, 49, of Mattituck, to Public Safety Dispatcher II — the supervisor of the department’s dispatch unit — at a rate of $80,742.64 a year. In her new role, Ms. Paladino, the Southold police department’s current longest-serving dispatcher, will train two new dispatchers, Tracey Carragher and Ryan Wesnofske, whom the board also voted to hire on March 12. Both will earn a salary of $57,654.45 a year. The newcomers have filled positions left vacant in the police department for around two years.

“She’s been an excellent dispatcher for all these years,” Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley said in a telephone interview. “She’s a very calming influence when she talks to people during 911 conversations, and that’s really her years of experience … She’s in a good position to train our new dispatchers coming on and handle that office because everybody in the office respects her.”

On the desk in her new manager office — on the basement level shared with the property sergeant and IT activities — Ms. Paladino keeps three-ring binders loaded with training materials for her new recruits. Their training period will last approximately six months, but getting a handle on the job takes much longer.

After 28 years, Ms. Paladino has acquired experience her new trainees will not find in a training manual. Among other valuable lessons, the seasoned veteran knows how to manage the stress of her job.

“Everybody has their own unique way of dealing with it, processing it,” Ms. Paladino said. She added that she is often asked how to cope with calls that end in death. Regarding these situations, she said “my thought is, they didn’t die alone. I was there with them at the end, and that brings peace to me … Knowing that I did the best that I could and gave everything I could makes me feel good.”

As supervisor, Ms. Paladino will be responsible for ensuring her dispatchers stay current on their trainings and certifications, as well as scheduling matters. At least two members of her team, now 14 employees strong, are on duty at all times at Southold Town police headquarters, each manning a station with seven computer screens. These full-time civil servants work on a rotating slate of eight-hour shifts across a three-week cycle many of them call “the pinwheel.” For one week they work 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., the next week 4 p.m. to midnight and, finally, the midnight to 8 a.m. tour. Just like the department’s police officers, the dispatchers repeat this cycle for the length of their service.

This demanding schedule is among the factors to which Chief Flatley pointed when asked about the difficulties of hiring and retaining dispatchers.

“It’s a tough position, because you’re working three tours around the clock, and you’re locked into an office like that all day long,” he said. “A lot of the dispatchers that we’ve hired recently have taken other jobs and moved away from this area, or haven’t been able to afford this area.”

Like Southold police officers, the department’s dispatchers have partners with whom they share shifts. On a not-too-busy day, partners can share the leg work of a single emergency call to reduce the response time. On busier days when they are fielding multiple calls, the partners must work independently. If one dispatcher answers a call regarding a medical emergency on a slower day, they can begin flipping through their copy of the Emergency Medical Dispatch guide cards, where they will find questions they should ask their caller and instructions they should provide so they can administer care until first responders arrive. 

“[Dispatchers] have to just remain very calm,” Ms. Paladino said. “You have to keep a relaxed tone, but caring and confident at the same time. It’s something that takes a little time to master.”

They must also begin filling in information regarding the caller and the nature of the emergency on one of their seven monitors. Their partner, commanding their own set of seven monitors, three mice and two keyboards, can then pull up this information and reach out to the appropriate first responders. In the case of a medical emergency requiring an EMT, this dispatcher would first click a button that will set off alarms at the closest firehouse and sound that department’s volunteers’ pagers. The dispatcher will then broadcast a message to all local fire stations. The message will begin with a call sign for the appropriate department, followed by a code that informs first responders of the nature of the situation.

Former Southold police department dispatcher Mark Zaleski, who served alongside Ms. Paladino as her partner for around 11 years, said it took him roughly three years to feel “totally confident” balancing multiple calls.

“Especially in the summertime, you’ve got maybe five, six, maybe seven things going on at once, and you have to remember what’s going on,” Mr. Zaleski said. “If somebody calls and says, ‘I think my wife is having a heart attack,’ or ‘I think my kid is choking,’ you’ve got to start working on that, but also keep the other ear to the radio in case one of the units comes on and says, ‘I got a car stop here, I need backup.’ ”

For dispatchers, reaching out to police officers is a similar process to reaching firefighters and EMTs. Over a broadcast audible to all officers across Southold Town from Laurel to Orient, including the Village of Greenport, as well as Shelter Island and Fishers Island, dispatchers in Southold Town police headquarters say a call sign associated with a sector to which officers are assigned, followed by the relevant information first responders need. Dispatchers also type in the necessary details related to an emergency — the who, what, when and where — in a program. Officers can then pull up this saved data on the computer systems in their patrol cars.

“If you can’t multitask, this job might not be for you,” Ms. Paladino emphasized. Additionally, the veteran dispatcher said anyone performing her duties must have an excellent memory and a well of empathy. “You have to learn the different officers, their voices, their badge numbers. Empathy goes a long way. You have to be able to sympathize with the [caller] and their situation at the time, but not bring it home with you.”

After nearly three decades serving Southold Town, Ms. Paladino said her job has yet to become stale. The public servant, who Mr. Zaleski described as “confident” and someone who “gets along with everybody,” said it’s the dispatchers and officers around her, as well as the feeling of community service, that have kept her around for so long, and will keep her in the Southold Police headquarters for years to come.

“The coworkers are amazing, there’s a sense of family,” she said. “I really enjoy helping the community. It makes me feel good to be able to help somebody, and to do that on a daily basis, to me, is a great job … There’s good calls, and there’s bad calls. You have people pass away, but you also have people that give birth. It equals out.”