The dispatcher’s workstation tells the story of her life.
Information flashing across five large computer screens includes the names of 21 Orange County sheriff’s deputies on duty in Stefanie Gardner’s dispatch area of San Juan Capistrano, Dana Point and San Clemente.
To the right of Gardner, atop her tidy desk, sits a binder containing notes from the full load of health sciences classes she’s taking at Saddleback College — ahead of nursing school that begins in August (she’s getting straight As).
And on Gardner’s left, on her personal laptop, a blown-up picture shows Gardner posing on a bench at Mission San Juan Capistrano with the loves of her life: her three children (ages 8 to 21) and 1-year-old grand-daughter.
Did we mention this single mother also volunteers weekly in the emergency rooms of Saddleback Memorial in Laguna Hills and CHOC Children’s in Orange?
And that twice a week, Gardner, 38, faithfully attends Harvest Orange County, the Christian church in Irvine?
“I have a really boring life,” Gardner says.
National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, which honors telecommunications personnel in the public safety community, ends this Sunday, April 16.
Gardner exemplifies the hard-working, schedule-juggling 911 call-takers and dispatchers that toil 24/7 for the OCSD in a windowless room inside the Loma Ridge Emergency Operation Center.
“She is awesome and consistently does strong work,” says Dispatch Supervisor Jeff Williams.
The bunker-like EOC looms behind secure gates on nearly six acres of unincorporated land atop Loma Ridge, 1,320 feet above the area where the 241 and 261 toll roads intersect.
Canyon country — and also the place where O.C. emergency personnel converge in the event of disasters or possible ones like the predicted deluge of El Niño storms that never materialized this winter and spring.
The group that huddles at the EOC officially is known as the Control One component of the Countywide Coordinated Communications System. The CCCS and Dispatch Center make up the OCSD’s Emergency Communications Bureau, which is run by Lt. Cindi Coppock.
One of the most senior of the OCSD’s current roster of 37 call-takers and dispatchers stationed at Loma Ridge, Gardner hit the ground running when she was hired by the agency in 1999. Just a week out of training, she handled an officer-involved shooting (the deputy ended up OK).
Gardner, like other OCSD dispatchers and call-takers, has been on countless traumatic calls.
One that sticks out came when Gardner had just come back to work from maternity leave.
On the other end of the phone was a mother who accidentally killed her infant by rolling on the 6-week-old while sleeping, suffocating the baby.
“This job is very high stress,” Gardner says. “But I don’t take anything home.”
Gardner isn’t the only super-mom working as an OCSD dispatcher.
Among her colleagues are single mother Beth Weickum, who worked to put her daughter through college, and two other single-mom dispatchers, Candace Moran and Carla Hixson.
Gardner says dispatching is an ideal career for busy people. She says the OCSD is very accommodating about scheduling shifts around school and family time. She currently works 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.
OCSD call-takers and dispatchers handle calls coming from the county’s vast expanse of unincorporated territory as well as 14 cities that contract with the OCSD for police services (in all, about 700,000 residents).
They handle nearly 1 million 911 and non-emergency calls a year — a staggering number that works out to an average of about 2,500 calls per day.
Call-takers —- the lifeline for the public — handle 911 and business calls.
Dispatchers like Gardner talk to deputies in the field.
Only one of Gardner’s three children — 8-year-old son Kaden — still lives with her at their home in Portola Springs right down the hill in Irvine. But he’s a full-time job (and joy).
Daughter Tori, 21, is married and has a daughter, Kendall, 1.
Son Mason, 14, lives with his father in Seattle.
Gardner, who is from Hemet — her father is a retired police officer there — has wanted to be a nurse all her life.
But having children so young (she had her first at 17) delayed her dream.
Needing to find work as a young mother, Gardner applied and got the job at OCSD after a short stint as a police dispatcher for the City of Banning.
These days, the busybody Gardner typically is in bed at 8 p.m. and up at 5 a.m.
She and her colleagues got to ditch their usual uniform of black OCSD polo shirt and khaki pants during National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, and their bosses — and the deputies they rarely meet in person — did nice things for them like buy them lunch.
Gardner’s choice of garb April 10-16 were jeans, sweatshirt and Uggs.
Gardner often has to stifle ughs! when taking 911 calls (she also serves as a call-taker).
Like the time when a mom called to complain that her young kid wouldn’t go to school.
“I thought to myself, ‘Just drive him yourself,’” Gardner says.
Or when people scream and call her names (it goes with the territory).
Or when babies playing with old cell phones mistakenly dial 911 (the gurgling and cooing on the other end of the phone are a big clue).
“Happens all the time,” Gardner says.
Or when a man called to ask Gardner if it’s a crime to kill an animal (his girlfriend had put a beta fish in cold water and it died).
Ah, the job of a dispatcher.
“I love it,” Gardner says. “It’s something new every day.”