VCUPD dispatchers serve key role for the university day and night

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Hectic — that’s the one word Tanya Brown uses to describe what it can be like for police dispatchers in the Virginia Commonwealth University Police Department.

Brown serves as the director of the VCUPD’s Emergency Communications Center and oversees 19 dispatchers. She has more than 20 years of experience in the field of public safety telecommunications and understands the pressure of being the person answering that time-sensitive, emergency call.

“When everyone in the city is sleeping, dispatchers are the driving force for helping to run the university,” Brown said of her team.

When everyone in the city is sleeping, dispatchers are the driving force for helping to run the university.

The center at 938 W. Grace St. keeps the lights on 24/7, and the staff on three separate shifts field calls for everything, from fallen tree branches on a city street to reports of suspicious persons to a crime in progress on one of VCU’s campuses. They are the men and women telling officers on the street where they absolutely need to be.

As far as how VCU’s dispatch center compares to a standard E-911 center, there’s really no difference.

“Stress-wise, we have the same calls that another 911 call center would have,” Brown said. “I always say, ‘Together everyone achieves more,’ so being in that close team environment really helps us.”

Among their responsibilities, dispatchers monitor security cameras on both campuses and can watch live video feeds of an active incident. Communicating timely information to officers on the street gives police an idea of what they’re headed into and what dangers to look out for. 

“These folks work very hard. Often, when community members are victims of crime, dispatch is the first touch that they have with the police,” said VCU Police Chief John Venuti. “The phones never stop ringing, the radio never stops squealing and there are many other duties that they do on a daily basis contributing to making people feel safe at VCU.”

Most students, faculty and staff may not know it, but it’s a dispatcher who issues emergency alert texts at all hours of the day and night to warn the VCU community about dangerous situations. They also route calls to and from the Richmond Police Department, monitor radio traffic for incidents in Richmond that may impact VCU and, in extreme emergency situations, they can shut down electronic card access to buildings on both campuses, in case of a lockdown at VCU.

“This is one of the few jobs at VCUPD that once you sit down you never get a chance to get back up until your shift is over,” Venuti said.

Because VCU Police has one of the largest university police forces in the country, it has a strong demand for services: In 2014, dispatchers received 97,551 calls for service. A dedicated staff member monitors the VCUPD’s LiveSafe system for texts, photos and videos submitted via smart phone app to police; a dispatcher will respond to each and every message and can exchange texts with tipsters.

“We can rest at night because we have very competent people working here,” Brown said. “The patrol supervisors on the street know that the job is going to get done.”

Each year during the second week of April, the Association of Public Safety Communication Officials honors telecommunications personnel in the public safety community. In Virginia, the governor traditionally signs a proclamation recognizing the critical service dispatchers provide to their communities.

VCU Police recognizes this weeklong national event and staff thank dispatchers for their critical role in providing safety services to the university.


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