Jessica Melo recalls the elderly woman on the other end of the phone who could hardly breathe.

A New Bedford Police Department dispatcher for two and a half years — a former medical assistant with no law enforcement background who had to learn “a whole new language” to become a dispatcher — Melo immediately went to her COVID-19 protocol and her training, asking the woman a series of questions meant to assess whether she might have the coronavirus.

“Do you have a fever? Are you coughing? Have you been out of the country?” the 33-year-old dispatcher asked these questions and others.

Melo became convinced the woman had the virus. She was exhibiting all the physical symptoms, she said.

She dispatched medics to the woman’s address. “I stood on the phone until paramedics arrived. It was heart-breaking. I asked if anyone else was there. She had a really hard time answering questions,” Melo said.

New Bedford paramedics arrived five minutes after Melo answered the call and transported the woman to the hospital. Melo doesn’t know what happened to the woman. As soon as she put down that call, she moved on to the next call.

“We don’t know the outcome of any call,” she said.

NBPD dispatchers are the first human voice people hear on the phone when they are stressed and in the throngs of an emergency, not just in these COVID-19 times. They work behind the scenes in a fast-paced, heart-pounding world, multi-tasking as they move from one emergency to the next. They can never get complacent because there always is another call, another unknown emergency waiting for them.

“There is a lot going on. You have to multi-task,” Melo said. “There is always another call to answer. It is overwhelming with the amount of medical calls we’re getting. It’s the beast of the job. This is something way out of the ordinary for me. It is not for everyone. It’s a challenge everyday.”

“Things could happen at any minute,” said Sherry Bettencourt, a 44-year-old New Bedford woman, who has been a NBPD dispatcher for 15 1/2 years. “I have compassion and empathy for all who call and keep my officers safe.”

They are trained to be professional, detail-oriented and patient. They are taught to listen and process information carefully and then dispatch resources immediately, working as a team with police and paramedics on the streets and their other dispatchers in the communications room. They take each call as it comes in, never knowing what emergency is on the other end of the phone call. They take pride in their work and they love to help people.

“I can be that calm voice to let them know help is on the way,” said Ra-Neka Silva, a 42-year-old New Bedford woman, who will celebrate her 19th anniversary as an NBPD dispatcher in June.

–Curt Brown, Standard-Times