Corinna Jacobs heard thousands of voices during nearly a quarter century as a 911 dispatcher in Baker County, but only once did she listen to a newborn baby exercise his prodigious vocal cords for the first time.
The call had come in about 10 minutes earlier.
The caller was a woman whose daughter was in the late stages of labor.
“She was pretty panicky at first,” Jacobs said of the woman who dialed 911.
But Jacobs did what dispatchers are trained to do.
She spoke calmly and with confidence. She suggested things for the woman to do, consulting one of the cards that help dispatchers guide people, many of whom are dealing with the most stressful moments of their lives, address all manner of medical issues.
“Once there were things for her to do, she calmed down,” Jacobs said.
She had of course immediately dispatched an ambulance to the home, which was in Baker City.
Just before the ambulance arrived, Jacobs heard the inimitable squawls of a newborn.
The mom and her baby, a boy, were healthy.
Many 911 calls do not end happily, of course.
A life might be ending rather than beginning.
But the dispatcher’s job is the same.
“No matter how you feel inside, you try to sound calm and confident,” Jacobs said. “The calm voice helps people.”
For the past 24 years Jacobs has been one of those voices at the Baker County Consolidated Dispatch Center at the sheriff’s office on K Street in northwest Baker City.
She and other dispatchers answer 911 calls as well as coordinating the response by officers from the Baker City Police Department and the sheriff’s office, law enforcement from the Forest Service and BLM, and firefighters and EMTs from volunteer agencies across Baker County’s 2 million acres.
Just around dawn on the first day of 2023, at 6 a.m., Jacobs finished her 12-hour shift.
And although she is officially retired, it wasn’t her final shift.
She plans to fill in as needed as a reserve, when other dispatchers are on vacation or ill.
Jacobs, 60, said she’s eager to spend more time with her grandchildren and on her family’s cattle ranch in Keating Valley.
But she’s also glad she won’t completely give up a job that, for all its stress and harrowing moments, when someone’s life was at stake and she was connected by the invisible tether of a phone call, was immensely rewarding.
“I do love the job, the fast pace,” Jacobs said. “I like being able to help people. I will miss my coworkers. We have such a good team.”
Jacobs is also a volunteer with the sheriff’s office’s search and rescue team.
“Corinna is an amazing person and while she did retire, she is still a valued member of our sheriff’s office as a reserve and Search and Rescue volunteer,” Baker County Sheriff Travis Ash said. “Corinna’s dedication to serving others goes above and beyond expectations.”
An unplanned job turns into a career
Jacobs never expected she’d make a career of helping people deal with emergencies.
She grew up in Baker County.
She and her husband, Perry, raised their three children, Jason, Katy and Alyssa, on their Keating ranch.
(Perry Jacobs died Sept. 10, 2021.)
Jacobs worked for the Baker School District for a time, and in 1997 a friend mentioned that the sheriff’s office was looking for dispatchers.
Jacobs spoke with then-sheriff Terry Speelman, who hired her just before the county’s dispatch center consolidated with Baker City’s.
Jacobs said her two weeks of training at the police academy in Salem helped prepare her for the job.
But nothing can compare with actual experience — “in the seat learning,” as she puts it.
Jacobs said she recognized relatively soon that she thrived in the sometimes hectic atmosphere, when every phone call could immediately plunge her into a life-or-death situation.
“It can be overwhelming,” she said. “There’s a lot that comes at you all at once. You have to learn to multitask. I always tell people, if it’s not (the job) for you, that’s OK.”
But Jacobs adapted — even to the periods when she worked the 12-hour night shift, 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.
“There are a lot of things I like about the night shift,” she said.
The pace is generally slower, she said, with fewer calls.
Yet the likelihood that a call will be a true emergency is also higher, Jacobs pointed out — people are less likely to call 911 at 3 a.m. because, say, a cat is stuck in a tree.
But even during periods between 911 calls, there’s no shortage of tasks to attend to, she said.
Besides the inevitable paperwork, dispatchers also respond to all radio calls from police officers and other emergency responders. Jacobs said two dispatchers are on duty each shift, and generally one handles 911 calls while the other deals with radio traffic.
But phone calls aren’t limited to 911 emergencies. Dispatchers also take calls to the police nonemergency number.
Those can include all sorts of issues, Jacobs said — “theft, trespassing, a cold crime, where someone comes home and finds their home has been broken into.”
Emergencies of all kinds
911 calls, of course, are different.
“There’s always a sense of urgency,” Jacobs said.
In those first few seconds, dispatchers don’t know whether they’ll be confronted with a traffic pileup on the freeway, a plane crash in the mountains, a lost hunter in the wilderness, or a crime victim bleeding on somebody’s sofa.
The list of possibilities is daunting in its length and potential complexity.
And while the dispatcher is immersed in one situation, the phone might ring, bringing another, equally difficult, problem.
The emotional fatigue can accumulate, Jacobs said.
“You don’t always get to rest and take a break,” she said. “You have to take care of a call and move on.”
Jacobs said the sheriff’s office makes sure dispatchers have access to counseling if needed.
“We also support each other,” she said.
Technology changes over 24 years
Cellphones were around in 1997, of course.
But they weren’t ubiquitous as they are now, and their prevalence has changed the dispatcher’s job, Jacobs said.
She was much more likely in the latter part of her career to take a 911 call from someone who was lost or hurt in the remote country that makes up most of Baker County.
“Hunting season is a busy time, mushroom season when people forget to look where they’re going,” she said. “Or early in the spring, people who need to get out and end up getting stuck.”
Jacobs recalls talking with a woman who, while picking mushrooms, became separated from the others in her group.
Fortunately the woman found her companions before the searchers Jacobs had summoned arrived.
Another time she talked for many minutes with people who were caring for a man who had crashed while hang-gliding near Unity.
She also vividly remembers the challenge of setting up a rescue for a hiker who had fallen in the Eagle Cap Wilderness.
One great benefit of cellphones, Jacobs said, is that in most cases dispatchers can quickly pinpoint the caller’s location. That’s especially critical in situations such as the hang-glider, since at the time there were no emergency responders nearby.
“It’s an incredible improvement,” she said.
Whether the caller is using a cell or a landline, Jacobs said it’s gratifying to be able to help not only with the most pressing issue — guiding someone through the steps of CPR, for instance — but also to keep talking to the person for as long as is necessary.
Even when the crisis is apparently passed, she said the dispatcher’s voice, a palpable if distant presence, can soothe people and ease their stress.
“You stay with them as long as they need you,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs said she had considered retiring after reaching her 25-year anniversary.
But she ultimately decided that concluding her career at the end of 2022 “seemed right.”
Jacobs said she doesn’t rebound from night shifts as rapidly as she did early in her career. But even as she enjoys having much more time on the ranch, and attending her grandkids’ games and school programs and other activities, Jacobs is grateful that she’ll still, on occasion, sit in her familiar seat, listening to the chatter on the emergency radio channels and, as always, waiting for the 911 calls and wondering what challenge will confront her.
“I’m glad to have that opportunity,” she said. “I’ll miss my sheriff’s office family, miss the people more than anything. But if they need me I can be there for them.”
Perhaps she’ll even assist in a second birth.