Police Dispatcher is There for Caller in Deep Crisis
UT System Presents Life Saving Award to Emergency Communications Veteran
Sept. 24, 2009
Three simple words may have been the difference between life and death.
Here’s the scene: A man sitting in his car at a park in Carrollton phones University Police.
UT Dallas police dispatcher Donna Shannon answered the call.
“I’m sitting here… with a pistol in my lap, and I’m trying to figure out just why I shouldn’t put it up to my temple and pull the trigger,” the voice on the line said.
“Because I care,” Shannon responded without hesitation.
Her words opened a lifeline of communication between two strangers. They exchanged names, birthdays and even shared a few family issues.
Within minutes, Shannon was able to get the 63-year-old veteran the help he needed.
The caller told Shannon that his wife is terminally ill, and that he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism. He also said that his finances were in distress.
Shannon listened, offering words of support and encouragement.
UT System recognized the fast-thinking, effective dispatcher for her life-saving effort. UT Dallas police communications supervisor Lisa Alexander submitted Shannon’s name to UT System Police Director John Slettebo for special recognition. Director Slettebo and acting Chief Michael Tacker presented Shannon with the Life Saving Bar and the Meritorious Conduct Award in a ceremony at University Police headquarters on Tuesday.
The special recognition was as surprise to Shannon, as coworkers, police and supervisors held the secret of the ceremony for weeks.
“Donna’s forté is customer service. Every call she answers is important to her, and she goes out of her way to assist the caller with whatever their need is. It was her true desire to help people and her love for them that kicked in when she answered the phone that day,” Alexander said.
Slettebo agreed: “Her service and what she did exemplify what telecommunications operators are all about. She did a wonderful job in saving that person’s life. I wish I had more like her. She’s a very caring person, you can tell.”
The caller, who said he has ties to UT Dallas, was reassured right away. Shannon suggested to him that he had probably called campus police because he knew about the quality of people associated with the University. Shannon has been employed at UT Dallas little over a year, though she has been involved with law enforcement for more than 20 years.
According to Alexander, every new police dispatcher undergoes a three-month training program on how to cover various calls. But the training does not specifically cover the type of distress call Shannon managed.
Police estimate that roughly 40 percent of calls received are emergencies.
Shannon spoke with the caller for little more than 15 minutes – getting his location, passing notes to fellow dispatcher Doug Wagner to inform Carrollton Police, and helping to calm frayed nerves – before the man was apprehended and taken to Parkland Hospital for psychiatric observation.
The following Monday, Alexander said, the man called to thank Shannon. He told Alexander that he had been off his medication. He also reported getting back on his medication and starting in-patient therapy. Looking back, the man said that while Shannon did not honor his requests not to call police, she did “exactly the right thing.”
Alexander said Shannon currently assists in training new dispatchers on crisis call management.
“Shannon’s experience certainly played a role in the way she handled this call and helped pull this man through his pain,” Alexander said.
Above: In a ceremony also attended by her son, dispatcher Donna Shannon was recognized for getting help to a suicidal caller. “You know what I know: My mom is great,” said Allen Kent, Shannon’s oldest son who attended the ceremony. “I may be a bit biased.”
Below: Shannon was presented with the Life Saving Award and the Meritorious Conduct Award.