After nearly 22 years as a Mesa Police Department 911 dispatcher, Mesa native Leann McLaws has retired. She recently reflected on her career as she plans to come back on a part-time schedule two days a week in the dispatch center.
“I just want to stay in touch with everyone,” McLaws said. “It will be 22 years in April for me, so it’s hard to leave.”
It was her ex-husband, a Gilbert police officer, who originally encouraged McLaws to become a 911 dispatcher.
“He said I had the perfect personality for it,” she remembered.
“You know you’re helping people and knowing you’re reassuring them on their worst day” is what McLaws said she likes most about the job. “It’s all well worth it to have a great feeling about what you do.”
McLaws said the position requires taking the 911 call and then dispatching police officers to the scene if it’s an emergency. She said there are usually 10 dispatchers on the floor for each shift that can be eight to 10 hours long. She said 911 dispatchers in Mesa take about 800,000 calls a year, with 257,000 being true emergencies.
“Not everyone can do this job and it almost changes you, but it’s worth it,” McLaws added. “The people here are awesome and I’d miss them, so I’m glad I’m coming back part time to keep involved.”
The fifth-generation Mesa resident is a graduate of Westwood High School with four children, eight grandchildren and two more on the way so retiring will give her more family time.
Every 911 dispatcher has their most memorable call and for McLaws it was when the roommate of Travis Alexander called 911 after finding him dead in his bathroom shower in what we now know was at the hands of his ex-girlfriend Jodi Arias on June 4, 2008 in Alexander’s Mesa home.
“Of course, months later, it became a big deal so you never know what you’re going to get,” McLaws said.
Her boss said that ability to never get “rattled” is why McLaws is a great 911 dispatcher.
“I remember her handling a hearing-impaired call, which is not easy to do, and not only that but there were two parties involved and one was suicidal. That means she had to go through a list, which is a challenge, and Leann was able to save the one who was going to jump off a parking garage. She kept them talking until Sky Harbor cops got there and were able to save him,” said Cari Zanella, communications administrator for the Mesa Police Public Safety Communications Department. “That is super challenging and in my years, I’ve never had to do anything like that.”
Zanella noted that McLaws has a large family and that one time she had to take the 911 call when her father-in-law was having a heart attack. “I saw his address come up and I knew something was wrong,” McLaws remembered.
“I think (McLaws) is an amazing example to those who sit around her and those who she’s trained,” Zanella continued. “She has been a trainer since her second year here. This is a stressful job but she has this patience, that’s a gift and it’s an amazing testament to the training she’s done.”
Bill Peters, commander of the Mesa Police Technical Services Department, said he can’t even imagine how many lives McLaws has impacted personally and those she’s saved through the years.
“Our 911 takers are the first ones on the worst call of a person’s life and (McLaws) has handled 105,000 calls,” Peters said.
Assistant Chief Tony Lythgoe, who is responsible for handling Mesa Police Department communications in the Administrative Services Bureau, noted that nearly 22 years as a 911 dispatcher is a long time.
“It’s not an easy job,” Lythgoe said. “It’s stressful and hard on your personal life with the hours you work. There is no way to count all the people you affect in your career, but you know you impacted them.”
Lythgoe assured McLaws that she has impacted many people’s lives, including the other 911 dispatchers she’s trained for the city.
Interim Mesa Police Chief Michael Dvorak said the skill set of a 911 operator is unique.
“You quickly realize what amazing people we have doing this job and all our officers thank you because you help save the lives of the officers, not just the public,” Dvorak told McLaws. “We recognize all the incredible work behind the scenes you do and we thank you for that. This job is done as a team.”
– Kelly Mixer is managing editor of MyNewsMesa.com. Reach her at email@example.com.