A Fairfax County dispatcher's last call
During Kim Joca’s long career, she has faced dangerous felons fleeing cops, unconscious infants being revived by CPR, fallen trees on power lines and even Elvis Presley threatening to sue a radio station.
And she never left her Fairfax County government cubicle.
After 22 years of dispatching 911 calls and more than five years as a communications supervisor in the Fairfax County Department of Public Safety Communications, Joca worked her last shift Tuesday night, entering the world of retirement.
She was feted Wednesday night with Red, Hot and Blue barbecue, given awards and greeted by dozens of her civilian colleagues, supervisors and a smattering of sworn personnel at a retirement party held at the Fairfax County Police Association on Revercomb Court in Fairfax.
Joca has been one of those faceless voices on the phone who deal with hours of tedium and moments of chaos in one of the most stressful professions on the planet. Despite the stresses, she said there was a simple rule of empathy that she tried to use to do her job well and not risk the lives of people calling in crisis or first responders heading to their aid.
“If the dispatcher goes out of control, then they’ll feed off that,” Joca said. “You’ve got to maintain control at all times.”
Her sense of control won her numerous awards and accolades during her tenure.
Steve Souder, director of the communications department, briefly but succinctly summed up her decades of service. He said 97 percent of law enforcement, firefighters and rescue personnel stay on the job through retirement, but only 7 percent of public safety communications workers reach the same milestones.
“Only the strong survive. That shows you what an achievement she’s made,” Souder said in an interview.
Joca, a Fairfax Station native, graduated from Lake Braddock High School in 1976, but found herself unemployed six years later. A conversation with a friend led Joca to take an aptitude test to become a dispatcher. That led to thousands of conversations with police officers, firefighters and residents in trouble.
She began in an era where dispatchers handwrote information on index cards and used map books and criss-cross telephone directories to guide patrol cars, fire engines and ambulances to emergencies. Computer systems have taken over the craft and now, as she exits, dispatchers are even given computerized recommendations on which units are available to go into service.
But staying calm remained a hallmark of what she tried to accomplish, and that was on display in 1988 when she talked a teenage babysitter through the revival of an infant boy who suddenly stopped breathing. The high school girl called authorities while she was babysitting a set of twins, one of whom fell unconscious. When she called for help the girl didn’t know the correct address of the house.
The teen had CPR training and began rescue efforts, but Joca had her find a piece of mail so an ambulance could be dispatched, then coached the babysitter back to resuscitating the child.
The teen saved the boy, and Joca was awarded the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce Valor Award for her efforts.
But communications work isn’t always about life-saving. Sometimes it brings life’s quirkier moments – and people – on the line.
For example there was “Gracie,” an elderly Falls Church woman who suffered from dementia and used to call daily during the late 1980s explaining that she had wallpapered her apartment with tin foil to keep out harmful rays, but wanted police to come help her because she feared people were trying to burglarize her house.
After many months, “Gracie” realized how busy the dispatchers were and was satisfied to be transferred to a voice mail, so Joca and her co-workers could finish doing their “Hill Street Blues thing,” Joca recalled.
Then there were the calls from “Elvis Presley,” a man who constantly called in a rage ready to file a lawsuit against a local country music radio station because they played his songs without paying the King his royalties. But “Elvis” kept a soft spot in his heart for Joca and others, as he did call in once to sing “Blue Christmas” one holiday season.
Throughout the chaos and the bizarre, Joca said she loved doing her job, and her job led her to love. She met her eventual husband and father of her two daughters, police 2nd Lt. George Joca, when he was her supervisor during the early part of her career.
Years later after he had been transferred to other police duties, the pair dated, then married. Now their daughters are in their 20s. George Joca said that sharing the stresses of their careers helped them keep a happy home, because both loved their jobs and the people they worked with.
And for him, in particular, he always enjoyed the matriarchal and patriarchal ways that dispatchers looked out for him and his officers. Even if his wife could joke that she got paid to get on the radio and boss around her husband.
“She jokes she used to be able to tell me where to go and when to do it,” George Joca said.
Now, Joca is ready to kick up her feet and do nothing for a while, except for playing the occasional Atlantic City slot machine, spend some time camping, and using her metal detector to scour the Northern Virginia woods for Civil War artifacts.
Still, she said she will miss her work family and dispatching that made her feel like she was “right in the middle of the action.”
“When I left work last night, I was bawling like a little baby,” Joca said.
A big part of my job for the past nine years as a night police reporter has been spent on the phone with people like Joca. Nightly, my job has me phoning more than 30 police and fire agencies across the metropolitan area several times a night, checking in to see what mayhem public safety personnel are responding to in order to report news to our readers.
During that time, I have spoken with hundreds of dispatchers and call takers, both sworn officers and civilians, and almost all would not recognize me if I walked up and slapped them in the face. These nocturnal round of calls have given me a unique perspective, because I have heard from the worst folks, who get rattled and rude by the overwhelming influx of callers to the best who always protrude a professional and unflappable demeanor on the line.
Kim Joca has been among the most capable supervisors to answer my calls. She got to the point with accurate information and never changed her tone of voice, no matter how serious a crisis.
-- Clarence Williams
December 3, 2009; 12:00 PM ET
Categories: Clarence Williams , Fairfax , Heroes , Internal Affairs
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