One of Ottawa’s invisible heroes recently retired after over a decade of service to the city and surrounding areas.
Will Chapman has spent 13 years as a calm voice on the other end of the phone as an Ottawa dispatcher when those in need dialed 911.
On his final day, Chapman removed his headset and dropped it to the ground like a rock musician dropping the microphone.
“I look forward to the next part of my life, but I’m never going to forget this,” Chapman said in a speech to coworkers at a retirement party. “There’s no way you can.”
As one of the first people to respond to emergencies via interactions with the public, Chapman said keeping a calm demeanor is important but not always easy.
He’s talked people through emergency situations such as waking up to a loved one who has stopped breathing and parents struggling to assist children who are having seizures.
In some cases, he’s heard an individual’s last words.
“After 13 years there are still things that are overwhelming,” Chapman said. “When you think you’ve heard everything, when you think you’ve received every call, you haven’t. It’s going to come.”
Chapman’s wife, Gina, said he’s always been a bit of a “techie” with regards to his interest in the career and Chapman is quick to agree.
He worked for three decades at a tech company in the suburbs of Atlanta and joined a club filled with local co-workers who were ham radio operators.
When the company he was working for started a reorganization, Chapman opted to leave and move to Ottawa to be with Gina who he had met previously.
He was working at Connecting Point Computer Center in Streator when he saw in ad in the newspaper for testing for telecommunicators.
“It was something I was always interested in,” he said.
The test put him at the top of the list but it wasn’t for another two years before an opening came available and he was able to undergo further training.
At the time, the Ottawa Central Dispatch was in a small room where two dispatchers were “elbow to elbow,” according to Chapman. It also lacked the eight combined screens that dispatchers now work with who instead had to deal with binders and flip cards with instructions for specific emergency situations.
Chapman said he spent a lot of time alone in the room when working a 12-hour night shift.
The family made sacrifices and saw him less than they would have wanted. Gina said she would occasionally listen to the police scanner at night to hear his voice.
“People used to say, ‘Don’t you hate that he works nights?’ and it’s like no, I actually feel kind of safe,” she said.
“I had two kids at home. I actually feel like he’s got the city when I go to bed,” she said with a smile.
His wife and co-workers could tell when Chapman's stress level would begin to rise slightly as his southern accent would start to slip through. Those calls though were rare though, Chapman said.
The Central Dispatch room grew and relocated in the past years as has the number of dispatchers on one shift.
Still, three dispatchers could be on shift but when a phrase like “Is he breathing?” is heard then it’s all hands on deck regardless of whether it’s your moment for a lunch break.
“You’re always in this constant struggle of do I take a really big bite and hope the phone doesn’t ring or do I take a small bite and hope the phone doesn’t ring,” Chapman said.
“You learn in a hurry to stuff in the side of your mouth and talk around it,” he added with a laugh.
But sometimes a break is unavoidable, especially after particularly stressful calls.
“There are calls that deeply affect you that you just get through the call and you hang up the phone and say, ‘I need a minute,’ ” Chapman said.
As for specific stories, Chapman is reluctant to share as they’ve been private moments for some, other than to say “there’s a lot of calls I’ve taken that were traumatic on both ends.”
He added sometimes a dispatcher never learns the ultimate fate of those they talk to either unless they catch a fragment of their status from ambulance traffic or an officer in the hallway.
Chapman said the rough calls were fairly minimal and he was able to leave his job behind when the door closed on his way out.
And now he’s left the office for the final time and while he says he’ll miss the camaraderie of the police department, he’s enthused about what comes next.
Much like how his wife felt safe knowing Chapman was at his desk overlooking the city of Ottawa, he too feels safe knowing the dedicated team he’s formerly known as co-workers are continuing his watch.
“I would put our level of service against any agency around here,” Chapman said. “I think we do one of the best jobs of providing ongoing service to any community around here.”
“I did my best and I served the people of Ottawa the best that I could and I’m leaving it in good hands,” he added.
Did you know?
Ottawa dispatchers are not classified as "first responders," but instead as administrative support. A recently introduced bill to the House of Representatives known as the 911 Saves Act looks to reclassify them as "protective service occupations."