Many people change careers at some stage of their lives. Maybe it’s the challenge of starting a business or converting a favorite hobby into a new career. Or sometimes you realize you’ve reached the goals you initially set for yourself in one profession and you want to try something new.
This was the case for Alexandra Woodfork. Once an elementary and middle school teacher, Woodfork decided to trade her schoolbooks and lesson plans for a new career with the Houston Emergency Center. City Savvy caught up with the 9-1-1 Public Safety Answering Point supervisor to learn a little more about her new career.
What is a PSAP?
“This is where we receive our emergency and non-emergency phone calls. Normally our emergency calls are the ones requesting medical help, whereas our non-emergency calls are mostly accident calls, thefts, burglaries, nothing where anyone’s life is in imminent danger.”
Why did you choose this career?
“I wanted to try something new. I came from being a teacher, so I was ready for a career change. In short, I came here, enjoyed the scenery, and decided to stay. It’s very different from teaching, I must say.
“I taught for four years, third through eighth grade, and I taught at both public and private schools. I taught language arts and religion. It was at the end of the school year and we were all having our end-of-the-year parties, and I remember saying, ‘I’ve done my lifelong dream to be an educator. What’s next?’ Then I decided to apply for the city. I said, ‘If they actually call me back, I’m going to go for it!’”
How different is it from being a teacher to this?
“There’s actually a big difference. With teaching, you’re grading papers, you have lesson plans, so it’s never ending! You can’t leave work at work. Here at the Emergency Center, when I walk out the door, I’m out. I get that mental headspace back, and I get that freedom back to go home, rest, and then come back the following day.
“I grew up always saying I wanted to be a teacher, but with teaching, you bring it home with you every single night because there’s always something to do. It was becoming a little bit overwhelming being an educator, and I wanted to try something new.”
How do you leave this at the desk when you’re done for the day?
“It really depends on the call types. There are certain ones you are going to get all day, every day … pretty much the same thing but a different person calling. But there are those calls you get that you can’t leave at the door. You bring it home with you. I stay very prayerful. I like to meditate and I have a journal, so I like to write as well, because you know holding it in isn’t good. I just try to find ways to get it out in a positive way.”
Have you noticed an increase in calls during the COVID-19 pandemic?
“Definitely, there has been an increase in calls. A lot of them have been disturbance and assault calls that we’re receiving. Especially when we were in the lockdown, people were all at home together and arguments and fights were taking place. Sothe calls definitely increased then.”
Your background as a teacher requires you to have a lot of patience with your students. How are you able to apply your patience to this job during critical moments?
“I can definitely say being an educator prepared me for this job. Patience and remaining calm are the two key components to work here. When citizens call on our 9-1-1 queue, they’re going through an emergency situation, so it’s up to us to remain calm, remain respectful, but yet firm, to get the information that we have to get from the caller to ensure that we have proper police response go out to the location.”
Is it like it is on television?
“I think the way we would compare to those shows is when you see the call takers taking the phone calls and remaining calm, that’s definitely us. It’s something that we must do here. Most of the calls we receive are non-emergency. It’s not always something major taking place and someone’s life being in danger. But when those calls do come through, it puts you in a different headspace, because it could be a suicide in progress, it could be someone getting assaulted. They really take you down a different path. So you have to make sure that you’re in the right headspace because this job isn’t for everyone. You have to be very levelheaded and be able to think quickly on your feet.”
What about the crank calls? I’m sure you get those.
“We do. And we always send police. I’m not going to not send an officer out to the location simply because what I might think is simple and a non-emergency call might escalate into something more. But we have different priorities and call types that we use that can determine if its higher, or if it’s something that the officer needs to go to. It’s all about talking with the caller and getting to understand what exactly is going on.
“I know one time I received a call from a guy at Church’s Chicken about his chicken not being ready. He called 9-1-1. Yes! We get those calls. I told him I would send an officer, but those are not high priority calls. They normally end up calling back and canceling it because they’ve gotten their meal, or the situation has been taken care of. But, yeah, we do get those crank calls. We get a lot of kids that make crank calls on the phone, especially during the summer when they’re out of school and bored.”
What is a key takeaway you want readers to understand about your job?
“Our job is important because we’re helping the citizens of Houston in their most urgent times. With the pandemic going on and the rise in violence taking place right now, know that we’re here and we’re doing the best we can. Sometimes there is a wait, but that’s only because we’re so busy. Just know that we care about the citizens of Houston, and we do our best daily to make sure that we get the help that they need.”