Phyllis Gamache already had a full career in the Coast Guard — much of it spent in search-and-rescue and other emergency situations — when she started supervising emergencies on land.
In 2006, she took over Sagadahoc County’s 911 center. And in 2010, she took over as director of the Lewiston-Auburn 911 Emergency Communications Center. When someone in Lewiston, Auburn or Poland dials 9-1-1, one of Gamache’s staffers answers. The Sun Journal wanted to learn more about the woman in charge and what’s coming for the emergency service.
Name: Phyllis Gamache
Single, married or in a relationship: In a relationship
You joined the Coast Guard right after high school. Why? I knew I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for college. In hindsight, it was probably a maturity issue. But I also wanted to get a little adventure in. My brother was in the Coast Guard, so I knew a little about it through him. I joined, made it through basic training and promptly went to Kodiak, Alaska, which was great. I was 19 and living in Alaska. There were big bears and crazy daylight hours.
You retired from the Coast Guard as a chief petty officer. Why did you stay in the service to complete your 20 years? I spent 10 years on the West Coast and 10 years on the East Coast. I kept having opportunities that made me pinch myself and say “Is this really happening?” It could be something as simple as walking across the Golden Gate Bridge or working at a Coast Guard Academy graduation in which I am in the same room with (former Secretary of State) Madeleine Albright or President George W. Bush. I had an opportunity to do a lot of wonderful things, and that kept me interested.
How did you become a 911 boss? In the Coast Guard, I spent 10 years doing search and rescue communications and 10 years doing crisis management/media relations. I thought it was a good combination of my radio and technology experience and my crisis management experience.
What did you learn about dispatching as a center’s director? I think the most important thing I learned is that the people who answer the phones are the unsung heroes of public safety. Everybody assumes when they dial 911 that this voice will be there to help you through the situation. And they have no idea what goes into the making of a dispatcher. And I just have so much respect for what they do.
Why are they unsung? People always think of police cars and fire trucks and ambulances. And that’s the most visual aspect of public safety. Dispatchers are the first, first responders. They are the ones taking the call. They need to use their voices to control a situation where police officers get to use their physical presence.
As the center’s director, how do you help them? I try to make myself available. I try to spend as much time on the dispatch floor as I can. I certainly review lots of calls, and I try to give attaboys where attaboys are due, recognizing them for a job well done.
The technology for dispatching is becoming more advanced all the time, incorporating both land line and cell phones and various location technologies. Today, when someone calls 911, the dispatcher often knows the caller’s location within a couple of feet. What’s next? I think it’s going to be different modes of communications, like texting, receiving cell phone videos and pictures. What’s great right now is something we used to say in the Coast Guard: “Technology takes the search of out search and rescue.” I think the next step is going to be receiving information in different media formats. We need to decide what do we do with it and how do we process it.