Day in the (hospital) life: Switchboard operators should be called connection and alert specialists

By Eric Valdez Jan 5, 2016

Cindy Chadwick (closest), Brandi Byrnes (coordinator) and Deb Zurn (farthest) occupy the three rotating operators stations.

When you think of a switchboard operator, you might think of a woman in front of a large panel of phone jacks waiting to connect caller with callee. This hardly describes the job of switchboard operators at Wyoming Medical Center. They should really be called connection and alert specialists.

Take operator Brandi Byrnes who recently answered a call from a woman who happened to be on the phone with her daughter, and her daughter happened to be having a seizure inside the waiting room of the Ruth R. Ellbogen Family, Mother and Baby Center on the third floor of the West Tower. Brandi immediately called the Mother and Baby nurses' station who ran to the woman's aid and called a Rapid Response code to make sure the woman got the help she needed. Brandi stayed on the line with the woman's mother until help arrived.

Operators are the friendly voices you hear when you call the hospital's main line, and they are the voices you may hear on the PA system at Wyoming Medical Center, calling any number of medical codes and emergencies to get the right care in the right room as quickly as possible.

Working in shifts of two to three, our nine operators coordinate the connection of many different alerts, alarms, codes, directions, conversations, records and calls for help. These involve everyone from patients and family members, doctors, nurses, social workers, non-clinical staff, engineering, laboratory, policemen, fire personnel and the general public. Their office is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, just like the main hospital.

Operators monitor alarm systems for oxygen and nitrous oxide systems that feed the whole hospital. If one of these tanks gets low or malfunctions, an alarm alerts them and they contact engineering to investigate.

They monitor the generators, heating systems, data processing systems, chillers and alert the appropriate people when an issue arises. In the lab, if a door to the blood bank refrigerator is accidentally left open or the temperature drops inside the cooler, an alarm will sound. They have to notify someone in the lab to go investigate the refrigerator and make sure it’s cooling properly.

They page doctors and help coordinate medical conversations between providers and other healthcare staff. This can be tricky because they also have to manage an on-call list of providers that is constantly updated through text and email notifications. The operators average between 315 and 500 pages per day.

Top: One of the many control panels that must be monitored around the clock. Bottom: When you hear the lullaby inside the hospital, it’s the operators that have the pleasure of telling everyone listening that a new baby was born.

They process release of information (ROI) requests in the evenings and on weekends. This has saved thousands of dollars for the medical records department.

They are instrumental in calling the codes you hear overhead and the ones you don’t hear. All the different code alert systems funnel into their office. For example, when a patient's heart stops or they can't breathe, a nurse or another medical professional initiates a Code Blue by pushing a button in the patient’s room. It sounds an alarm on a wall panel in the operator’s office which indicates the room number for that code. They will then call the Code Blue through the overhead speaker so everyone in the hospital can hear. At the same time, they will notify the groups of clinical people by text and by page in case they can’t hear the overhead call.  (See everyone who responds to a Code Blue in our infographic at the bottom of this post.)

Other hospital codes work similarly. A call will come into the switchboard by special phone and the appropriate people are alerted by overhead speaker, text or page with the location information. At the end of 2015, operators called 1,567 codes -- an average of more than four per day.

"I love being a part of the process of saving someone's life."
- Deb Zurn

Oh yeah, they also still answer regular phone calls and connect people to the appropriate extension. Staff call other staff. Family members call patient rooms. Patients have called the switchboard from their rooms with questions or to contact staff. They’ve had people call from outside the hospital threatening to commit suicide. People will call asking general questions about Casper: How do I get the the Youth Crisis Center? Do you know where that new restaurant in town is located? 

They’ve had bomb threats, and one person even called wanting to know if WMC bought human organs. When you hear the lullaby playing over the loudspeaker, indicating that a new baby has just been born, it's the operators who get the pleasure of pushing the button.

“You never know what kind of call you’re going to pick up” is a consistent mantra of all the operators.

And they do all of this with a smile and an attitude of servitude. You can hear it in their voices, if you have a chance to talk to them long enough.

Operators Jeanie Green (at left) and Deb Zurn were hard at work recently in the control room underneath the South Parking Garage.

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