Answering the Call
Department of Criminal Justice Training Telecommunication Instructor Sarah Powell can trace her love for public safety to her brother-in-law, former Transylvania University and Cynthiana police officer Brian Hassall.
“He was my role model,” she said. “He was doing search and rescue, so I got started in search and rescue and I would play the victim for the training. They had to train the dogs every so often.”
Powell wasn't thinking about a career in public safety until Hassall was wounded in the line-of-duty in 1996 while with Transylvania. Months later, while sitting in a courtroom and holding her sister’s hand during the trial, Powell knew public safety was her calling.
Her first foray into public safety was as a member of the Bluegrass Search and Rescue after she turned 18. From there, her public-safety road has varied, but each piece was valuable and built on the other as she eventually found herself in a public-safety-dispatcher radio room.
After working with search and rescue, Powell became an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician), working for the ambulance services in Robertson and Anderson counties. Eventually, Powell moved to Georgetown-Scott County Emergency Medical Services as a licensed paramedic, where she still serves on a part-time basis.
In 2002, Powell gave up her full-time position in Robertson County for a part-time position in Anderson County. It was then, the world of public-safety dispatching opened up.
“I was hoping to get on full-time with the ambulance service, and when that didn’t happen, the director of the dispatch center asked if I would be interested in applying for dispatch,” she said. “I applied, and it went from there.”
Dispatching appealed to Powell’s meticulous nature, and soon, she was at DOCJT as a member of Public Safety Dispatch Academy Class No. 16.
When she went through PSDA in 2003, it wasn’t yet mandated by the state. However, Powell credited Lawrenceburg Police Department Dispatch Center Director Todd Sparrow for being ahead of the curve in regard to training.
“He had a huge impact on me and my career,” she said. “Even though it was a small agency, he really pushed the center and encouraged his employees. He sent us through (Telecommunicator Professional Standards) testing before it had a name, through the academy before it was mandated, and allowed us to take as much training as possible.
“He’s the reason I was the first Kentucky Law Enforcement Council career development program-certified Intermediate Telecommunicator in the state,” she continued. “He worked with me on scheduling to allow me to complete my paramedic courses and internship while working full-time for the dispatch center and part-time for the ambulance service. And he’s the reason I can honestly tell any of our trainees that it really doesn’t matter that they come from a small agency, it’s still possible to do everything a large agency does - including emergency medical dispatch.”
Having a detail-oriented mindset bodes well for public-safety dispatchers, she added.
“In some components of dispatching, it’s an asset because you really need to dig and get more information,” Powell said. “Not only from callers but also CJIS (Criminal Justice Information Services) and other resources.”
Like many facing the daunting task of dispatching, Powell was also unsure of herself until soon after graduating DOCJT, when she was working by herself in the small Lawrenceburg agency.
“I was apprehensive, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, can I actually do this?’’ she said. “It wasn’t too long after graduating the academy, and I was working on a Saturday by myself and everything in the county fell apart. We had injury accidents, structure fires, domestic assaults … it was pure chaos.
“Afterward, when it all died down, I thought, ‘I did it. It wasn’t too bad. I handled it,’” she said. “That was when I got the confidence in my ability to do the job.”
While working as a dispatcher, Powell attended the required in-service training at DOCJT, and that is when thoughts of becoming an instructor began to percolate.
“When I was in the academy, I thought this was a really impressive place and someplace that I would like to look at when I retired,” she said. “When I came back for in-services, I remember the instructors made me feel proud to be a dispatcher.”
In 2007, Powell took a full-time job with the Georgetown-Scott County ambulance service and kept working part-time in Lawrenceburg. After a few years in Scott County, a position opened at DOCJT and she made the transition to instructor.
As her brother-in-law once served as a role model for her, Powell now assumes the role of a mentor as she trains those heading into the dispatching field.
The enjoyment now comes from the challenge of passing on what she has learned throughout her public safety career to dispatch recruits.
“Part of it is because I am reminded that I really love dispatching, and I really do miss it,” she said. “At the same time, I feel I can influence so many more people.
Through her different roles in public safety, Powell has experienced both sides of the radio, which has helped her gain a better understanding in the field and it’s something she passes on to her PSDA recruits at DOCJT.
“It helped me as a dispatcher knowing more of what was expected on the other side of the radio,” she said. “Also, I had an idea of what was going on … I knew (responders) were doing other things in between radio traffic, and it made me a little more aware of it.”
Most importantly, Powell is reminded of the importance of her job as an instructor every time she sees her brother-in-law and her husband, former Harrodsburg Assistant Police Chief Chad Powell – who lost two friends in the line-of-duty in 2001 while working in Nicholasville.
“It’s not just a job,” she said. “It affects people’s lives. That is why I do flags for every class. I teach (recruits) how to do the flag ceremony on Fridays. I have done it for every single class, except one, since I started here. It’s not because I have to, it’s not been assigned to me – technically it’s the responsibility of the class coordinator. But as long as they allow me to do it, I will continue.”
A summary of her DOCJT career is tied to the flag ceremony, she said, adding that there are two reasons she is out there working with the recruits on Friday mornings.
“If you want to have respect as a dispatcher, then you have to earn it,” she said. “You have to stand out there next to the police recruits just like they do.”
Attitude and effort are what Powell is looking for in a recruit.
“I want you to try and remember the reason we’re doing it (flag ceremony),” Powell said. “(The memorial) is not just a hunk of metal out there. Those are people who are never going home again.”
To that end, Powell said what makes a good dispatcher is someone who is willing to continue learning.
“The day you feel like you know everything about it is the day you need to retire,” she said. “Complacency in our line of work will, unfortunately, get somebody killed.”