The long room, cut into cubicles by steel gray carpet-covered partitions, hums with a low buzz of one-sided telephone chatter. The four smiling women wear headsets and pleasant smiles while they answer frantic emergency calls.
“Hello, state police,” says the pleasant Michelle Armstrong, cool as a cucumber after nearly seven years as a radio dispatcher for the Virginia State Police's Division 1 headquarters on Brook Road.
“Yeah, I just passed a major accident at mile marker 186 on I-64,” says the caller, a faceless good Samaritan who just witnessed a Ford Focus slam into the center Jersey barrier and careen across five lanes of traffic.
Throughout, Armstrong maintains a modulated, counselorlike voice. Hanging up, Armstrong says, smiling: “Even complete chaos in here is muted chaos.”
But a different kind of chaos looms. With Virginia State Police under the hammer of a $22.5 million budget cut, the division soon will lose five members of its 911 call center.
Four are part-time call takers and one is a part-time dispatcher, but the loss, Armstrong says, will take the division's staffing down to critical levels.
Call takers serve as an extra set of ears during busy hours, handling the steady flow of nonemergency calls that come through the office — flat tires, overheated engines, lost motorists.
“It'll wear you out,” Armstrong says. “You end up working seven days in a row and when you've got a couple of 12-hour shifts thrown in, it makes for a long shift.”
State police spokeswoman Deborah Cox says the staff cuts shouldn't affect motorist safety. But “you can't cut $22.5 million and have it not have an effect on the level of services you provided,” Cox says. “It will have an effect.”
In the ongoing budget-crunch shell game, she says, the focus has been to maintain troopers on the street, though even they'll be hit by a mandatory series of furlough days that have been announced for all state workers.
“The department considered all aspects in order to limit the impact,” Cox says. “Our job now is going to be minimizing the impact these cuts have on our core mission.”