Veteran Volusia dispatch supervisor, longtime paramedic retires after 35 years of service
(Daytona Beach News-Journal published on March 8, 2017)
By Lyda Longa
DAYTONA BEACH — In 1988 when Debbie Smith's boss at EVAC asked her to become an ambulance dispatcher, she winced, thinking that she had just been handed the worst job on the planet.
After 35 years with the county — 29 of those years as a dispatcher — Smith was teary-eyed on her retirement day as she said goodbye to the one job that she grew to love and respect.
As the 64-year-old Smith — one of two assistant directors of the Volusia County Sheriff's Office Communications Center in Daytona Beach — talked about her career and looked out at her charges working busily at the vast communications facility on Tiger Bay Road, she became misty-eyed.
"I'm really going to miss being here," she said. "These people are like my kids."
While Smith was lauded at a retirement party Feb. 28 where she was presented with, among other gifts, a shadow box depicting her varied and long career, one of the biggest surprises came that afternoon when fire telecommunicator Roland Watts issued a retirement roll call announcement for his mentor on the police radio.
"She was always a pleasure to work with, a fair leader and role model," Watts said. "Through the years, she has been an adopted mom, friend, mentor, teacher for many of us."
And Smith was also a pioneer.
She started as a paramedic with EVAC ambulance in 1982 when there were few female paramedics. One of her first jobs was as a helicopter medic with the Sheriff's Office. The job was challenging enough, Smith said, without having to contend with the her male peers who were not exactly welcoming.
"You were definitely an outsider," Smith said. "It was hard. You were not easily accepted and you had to prove yourself, you had to work harder."
But she did prove herself and she went on to become the agency's first female corporal, lieutenant and captain. She said one of her greatest rewards was delivering 13 babies during her time in the field. The first infant she ever delivered — now 30 years old — became her goddaughter.
You remember the lives that you save and you remember, unfortunately, the lives that you didn't save," she said about her time as a paramedic.
In 1988 though, the unthinkable happened. Smith said her supervisor asked her to transition into EVAC's dispatch center because he thought she would be a good supervisor.
"I hated coming into dispatch, that was the least favorite job that anybody had," Smith recalled.
The hours were long, the pay was low and the stress of listening to the public's tragedies all day long seemed daunting.
Also, in contrast with her work as a paramedic, a dispatcher's job was looked upon as "a woman's job," Smith said.
"We were looked at as operators," Smith said. "And most operators were female."
In time though, Smith fell in love with the work of dispatching because it soon became evident that it is just as rewarding as being a paramedic.
"It's wonderful to be the first responder, to help people on the phone," said Smith, a mother of three children.
Dispatcher Gary Bittle recalled when Smith hired him 23 years ago.
"Through the years, her dedication, selflessness, compassion and concern about my well being and career, (as well as others that have worked for her throughout the years), has meant the world to me."
Smith said dispatching is not for everyone.
"Stress burnout is the biggest factor why people would not want this as a career," she said. "You are speaking to someone at the worst time in their life and it is very emotional. It is gut wrenching.
"What you miss is closure," Smith added.
There have also been some comedic moments in the Communications Center. Aside from the regular calls to 9-1-1 from people who want to know what time it is, or whether a certain restaurant is open, Smith recalled a 9-1-1 call several years ago from an elderly woman who was describing having trouble with "him."
The woman was extremely convincing, Smith said, and the dispatcher who was helping her thought the woman was talking about her husband who was having trouble breathing.
"When the firefighter got to her house, we all learned that the 'him' she was talking about was a plant," Smith said smiling. "We then used that call for training."
The veteran leaves a department always looking for more dispatchers and telecommunicators. Volusia County is budgeted for 160 dispatchers, but is staffed at 135.
"This is a high turnover job," she said.
Dispatchers work 12-hour shifts and the Sheriff's Communications Center fields a minimum of 1,000 calls a day, Smith said. The pay is also low compared to 31 other law enforcement agencies that have similar operations. In a study comparing Volusia County dispatch salary to the other agencies, Volusia's came in as the lowest paid, starting their employees at $11.72 an hour. Most of the other agencies start their dispatchers out at $13 or more an hour.
"It is hard to get people into this. You have to have it here to be able to serve the public," Smith said, putting her hand over her heart.
As for what she will do with her retirement, Smith said she cannot relax. She owns a sign language interpreter company and hopes to devote time to that. She and her husband Mitch Smith, a retired Daytona Beach firefighter-paramedic, also want to travel around the country. Their first stop will be Alaska in May.
When asked if she had any regrets over her 35-year career, Smith compose herself a few seconds before answering.
"I have no regrets," she said, her eyes tearful. "I loved serving the people."