For Nita Lapihuska, waiting on tables and bartending during high school and beyond provided her skills in customer service and multi-tasking that she likely never imagined would be of such benefit in her current career. Lapihuska serves as a Telecommunicator III for the Prince William County (Va.) Public Safety Communications Office that serves both the police and fire departments in the county. She has worked for the agency for nine years. Previously, she worked as a dispatcher in a neighboring jurisdiction.
During the time she worked as a waitress/bartender, police officers would often patronize the restaurant. Her boyfriend at the time—now her husband of 14 years—also worked for the restaurant and they both became corporate trainers. Her husband subsequently joined the police academy and has been a Prince William County police officer for 13 years. He encouraged Lapihuska to consider a career as a dispatcher. “He is why I ended up at Prince William. He was the driving force behind that,” she says.
In Prince William County, she attended a ten-week basic academy and became a calltaker. After proving herself, she moved into being a Telecommunicator I and then proceeded to Telecommunicator II, working with both the police and fire radio systems. Though she has done dispatching in both arenas, she prefers the police side.
Lapihuska admits that one has to “be on your toes” and that listening skills are crucial, as well as being able to continually engage on the radio. “You never know what you’re going to get. You have to be an active listener,” she says. She points out that it is not just what is being said that is important, but how it is being said. “You always have to listen,” Lapihuska says.
In addition, Lapihuska points out that it is necessary to multi-task and to be able to look at the whole screen as an entire picture. “You have to be in control on behalf of the officers,” she says. Moreover, she points out that it is advantageous to be a speedy typist. “They [the calls] come at you pretty fast and hard,” Lapihuska says.
Similar to a number of her dispatcher colleagues, Lapihuska acknowledges that any calls involving children and the elderly concern her. In particular, abuse cases, missing children, and domestic violence calls are troublesome. “I care deeply. They definitely break your heart,” she says. With domestic violence calls, she recognizes the importance of keeping the caller on the line and providing responding officers updates particularly if it is an episode in progress.
Lapihuska is cognizant of the fact that she must separate herself from the calls yet still let those on the other end of the line know that she is there for them. It is not uncommon for her to be thinking of her calls as she is heading home. “You’re the one behind the scenes. We’re always there for people no matter what kind of emergency they have, and sometimes it is taken for granted,” Lapihuska says. She admits that calltakers and dispatchers sometimes don’t get the credit they deserve even though they play a large part in containing the situation.
Still, the job has its own rewards. Though she cannot relay the details, Lapihuska explains a recent high-priority call that she worked—a shooting. “It was a situation that could have been worse than what it was,” Lapihuska says. Teamwork played an integral role in the call, as it often does in her job. “There is a lot of trust between all of the co-workers, fire and police,” she says. What was rewarding for her, she says, “was to be able to drive home and realize that it was handled beautifully.”
Most of Lapihuska’s friends are in the public safety arena. “They become your family,” she says. Her husband works the day shift while she works at night, so they do not see a lot of each other. However, they share much in common. “We talk about work. This is my career,” Lapihuska says.
Has her job changed her? “Indeed,” she responds. Lapihuska says she is more cautious and is aware that the public is always watching. She understands that she is a representative of the agency both on and off duty. She acknowledges that some people could not handle this job and be able to deal with the pace of things that happen.
Obviously, Lapihuska handles it well. She has received two departmental awards—the 2010 Police Dispatcher of the Year award and the 2013 Customer Service Award.
Lapihuska enjoys her job. She works a lot of overtime, but she also does not allow it to run her life. “I care a lot about all aspects of it.” she says. On her days off, she tries to do something for herself, and she doesn’t bring the job home with her. “I love what I do. I have 20 more years before retirement. I have a lot of expectations on me, and I’m happy to meet them. I work for a wonderful group of men and women,” Lapihuska says. Undoubtedly, her passion and skills will enable her to continue progressing on a rewarding career path.
About the Author
Karen L. Bune serves as an adjunct professor at George Mason University and Marymount University in Virginia, and she is a consultant for the Training and Technical Assistance Center for the Office for Victims of Crime and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, U.S. Department of Justice. She is a nationally recognized speaker and trainer on public safety issues. Ms. Bune is Board Certified in Traumatic Stress and Domestic Violence, and she is a Fellow of The Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress and the National Center for Crisis Management. She serves on the Institutional Review Board of The Police Foundation, Washington, D.C.