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Saltwater Portrait

Tammy Ketterman answers the calls

Rehoboth’s head dispatcher offers calm in desperate moments
April 30, 2019

Story Location:
229 Rehoboth Avenue
Rehoboth Beach  Delaware  19971
United States

After nearly 30 years of public service – 10 with the Air Force and 17 with the Rehoboth dispatch – Tammy Ketterman said the thing she’s learned over the course of her career is that a work-life balance is among the most important things a person can have.

“It’s certainly been hard work, but it’s been empowering to see that I can do whatever I set my mind on,” said Ketterman. “I try to be both the best, and enjoy my personal life and work every day.”

Under the official title of public safety answering point manager, Ketterman has been head of Rehoboth dispatch since 2013. She could remember the specific date she started – Feb. 4 – but, she said, it was either 2003 or 2004.

“I should go look it up in my personnel file,” she said, slightly embarrassed.

Ketterman, 55, grew up in Pensacola, Fla. After high school, she wasn’t really sure what she wanted to do, so she joined the Air Force. None of her family is in the military, and she grew up just 15 miles from Pensacola Naval Base – so she didn’t really have a good reason for joining the Air Force. But once she made up her mind to do it, she said, there was no turning back.

“I went to a recruiter in March, and I started basic training April 24,” she said. “I got home at least once a year to visit my mom, dad and sisters. There are some beautiful beaches.”

After she lived in England for a couple years and other places in Europe, the Air Force brought Ketterman to Dover Air Force Base.  Over 10 years of service, she rose to the rank of sergeant and was supervisor for packaging and freight when she was honorably discharged.

“The Air Force kept wanting to send me to Guam, and I don’t like snakes and poisonous frogs,” said Ketterman, laughing, on why she left. “Plus, my son was 18 months old, and I didn’t want to be away from him.”

Ketterman stayed in Delaware because her husband, who moved from Baltimore to Camden with his parents in the 1970s, wanted to stay close to his family. She said after the Air Force, she took a year off; then her father-in-law got really sick, and she spent four years taking care of him. She said after bouncing around medical offices for a couple of years, she answered a help wanted ad in the paper for the Rehoboth dispatch center and never looked back.

“A dispatch career always interested me because I have always wanted to help people,” she said.

The service area for Rehoboth’s dispatch, which handles calls for EMS, fire and police, runs from the Indian River bridge, north to Route 24, and west to the Angola Bay area.

Ketterman said there’s a noticeable increase in police calls during the summer months, but it’s a year-round ambulance business, estimating there are at least 300 ambulance calls a month, all year long.

“With a service area that’s so big, there’s always a need,” she said. “During the summertime, I could probably just live here.”

Ketterman said Rehoboth’s dispatch has changed in her nearly two decades – software, the number of personnel, and most notably, the office as a whole when the new city hall opened last year.

“It’s bigger and a lot prettier,” she said.

Ketterman said every call gets answered on the first ring, even when a dispatcher knows the calls are rolling in to report on the same major incident.

“You have to answer every call,” she said. “There could be a major accident on Route 1, and we’re getting dozens of calls on that one accident, but then there could be an incident at the Purple Parrot. Every call has to be answered.”

Ketterman said it takes a special person to be a dispatcher, because a dispatcher is often dealing with people at a moment in their lives when they are the most stressed. Dispatchers are taught calming techniques during training, but sometimes a caller simply can’t be calmed down.

Shortly after she began working for Rehoboth, Ketterman said she answered a call that would test her to the core. It was a girl, calling about an 18-year-old boy who had overdosed.

“My son was 18 at the time, and here I am talking to this boy’s friend, while in the back of my head I’m thinking, ‘Oh my god, this could be my son,’” said Ketterman. “It’s a job that you can’t take home with you, and not everybody can do that. You have to be ready to tell yourself you did the best you could, and then move on.”

Just as she has a military background, Ketterman said, the dispatchers she hires often come with emergency training because they’re volunteer firemen or former police officers. This can present its own challenges, she said.

“The incident could be happening right up the street, and you want to put the phone down and go help, but you can’t,” she said. “It’s one of the first things we preach. The procedures and protocols are in place for a reason, and you have to trust that in the end, the outcome will be better because you did your job correctly.”

One way she empties her mind from a day’s worth of calls is by blaring music on her ride home to Magnolia. She said she does it on the way into work too. “Country music,” she said, is her genre of choice.

She also bikes and walks a lot. “The music relaxes me. If I haven’t gotten all the day’s stresses out, I’ll take a walk. You have to have stress-relieving.”

Ketterman said dispatch is a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week job, and even when she’s off the clock, she knows what’s going on. She credits Rehoboth Police Chief Keith Banks with taking the reins when she’s on vacation, but even so, she always wants to know what’s going on.

“I knew when I took this position, it was part of the job. If I’m on vacation it doesn’t matter. I’ll take my computer with me and sit on the beach. I don’t care as long as I’m someplace warm,” she said.