Longtime Anaheim resident makes the grade in highly competitive job of police dispatcher

By Greg Hardesty

These are the kinds of phone calls she used to get:

Why did I get charged a late fee?

My statement didn’t reflect the credit when I made a return. What happened?

I made an appointment with a beauty stylist, but she didn’t show up.

The typical calls Anna Vasquez now fields during a 12-hour shift couldn’t be any different:

A man with a knife has broken into my home.

My wife is having chest pains.

I’m calling to report a dead body.

Being a customer service rep for a marquee department store chain is far different from being a dispatcher for the Anaheim PD, but both jobs require skills Vasquez excels at:

Being a good listener.

Remaining calm and courteous.

Excelling at multitasking.

“She makes a good police dispatcher,” says Kurt Wallace, a communications manager for the Anaheim PD. “She is empathetic to the callers’ needs, and she understands the diversity of the city, which helps a lot.”

Vasquez, 28, understands Anaheim’s diversity because she is, mostly, a product of the city.

Anaheim PD Dispatcher Anna Vasquez, who grew up in Anaheim, in the 911 dispatch center. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Only about 2 percent of all applicants get hired as an APD dispatcher. Anna Vasquez is one of them. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

The daughter of an electrician father and a mother who is an insurance broker, Vasquez was born at UCI Medical Center in Orange and spent her first 10 years in the Westminster/Garden Grove area.

A visit by a police officer to Warner Middle School in Westminster sparked Vasquez’s interest in a law enforcement-related career.

She started attending South Junior High in Anaheim as a seventh-grader and then went to Katella High School, where she was an average student who enjoyed water polo and swimming.

Vasquez went to Orange Coast College but short of earning her associate’s degree she started working full time, eventually ending up at a Nordstrom call center in 2006. She worked as a customer service representative there until 2013.

“We were trained to apologize for everything,” she recalls.

Surfing for a new job at Anaheim.net one day, Vasquez happened upon an opening for a police dispatcher.

Perfect, she thought.

There were two openings for a full-time dispatcher and one opening for a part-time position.

She applied in December 2012 for the highly competitive job and heard back from the APD in March 2013.

Vasquez aced the written test then took a personality test, followed by a typing test.

Anaheim PD Dispatcher Anna Vasquez, who grew up in Anaheim, in the 911 dispatch center. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Multitasking and being an “active listener” are among the skills required for being an effective police dispatcher. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

After those exams, Vasquez was invited to a panel interview with three APD officials.

Passing that, she then took a polygraph exam as part of an extensive background check. That was followed by a psychiatric and medical evaluation, and finally an interview with Anaheim Police Chief Raul Quezada and Deputy Chief Julian Harvey.

HR then called her and offered her the job.

“I was ecstatic,” says Vasquez, who started as a full-time APD dispatcher in October 2013.

Last year, about 800 people applied for a job as public safety dispatcher for the APD. Only about 2 percent of applicants get hired, according to Wallace.

“We look for someone who can multi task, who can switch gears easily, who has good customer-service skills and who’s an active listener,” Wallace says.

“They have to be able to catch cues between words, and notice the timber of a caller’s voice. Sometimes a 911 caller will say they are fine when he or she really isn’t. Dispatchers have to be able to pick up on verbal cues.”

Adds Wallace: “They also have to have the ability to control and direct a conversation. There is no script.”

On a recent weekday morning, a few hours after the start of her 12-hour shift, Vasquez, one of 36 dispatchers who work out of the PD’s second-floor communications center, fielded a variety of calls in just a few minutes.

When a call comes in, she pushes a pre-recorded greeting:

“Dispatcher Vasquez. Can I help you?”

A middle-aged man appeared to be drunk in public outside a liquor store — at 9:45 a.m.

A probable 911 misdial came in from a hotel. Turned out it was a misdial.

A man called about his wife having chest pains.

Of the average 1,500 calls that come into the APD dispatch center every day, only about 25 percent — or 400 — are 911 emergency calls. The rest are business-related calls.

Vasquez says she wants 911 callers to understand that dispatchers ask a lot of questions for a reason.

“And sometimes we sound like we’re being short with a caller, but we have to focus on getting the most information as quickly as possible, and sending help out within 60 seconds of getting a call,” she says.

At times, dispatchers have to deal with highly emotionally charged situations.

“One difficult call I got was about a kid who committed suicide in his garage,” Vasquez says. “I could hear the anguish in the voice of the caller and the screams in the background.”

Despite the challenging aspects of her job, Vasquez loves being a police dispatcher.

“I love the unity here,” she says. “It’s like a family here. And there’s never a dull day.”