Bourree Lam is a former staff writer at The Atlantic. She was previously the editor of Freakonomics.com.
Letisha Ghanbari has talked people through lock-outs and childbirth.
In another era, people would flag down passing cars for help during a roadside emergency. These days, a stranded drivers might have a cellphone and an in-vehicle emergency button.
OnStar is the division of GM that provides in-vehicle assistance during emergencies. The service receives nearly 200,000 calls daily, with around 3,000 of those calls qualifying as emergencies. Letisha Ghanbari has been an advisor answering calls at OnStar’s emergency response team for more than five years. Ghanbari was recently named Dispatcher of the Year by the International Academy of Emergency Dispatch for her work in assisting the delivery of two babies last year.
During one of those calls, Ghanbari helped a father in Missouri who was driving his pregnant daughter to the hospital while her husband was away serving in the U.S. Navy. After the delivery, without a a string or shoelace around, Ghanbari suggested cutting the umbilical cord with a cellphone charger.
I talked with Ghanbari about her job, how to stay calm when helping people through a crisis, and why high-stress calls are actually the easiest to handle. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Bourree Lam: How did you get this job and how long have you been doing it?
Letisha Ghanbari: I've been with OnStar for just under nine years. I've been with the emergency team for just a little over five years. I actually fell into the emergency team by accident. I was in sales before, and there was a supervisor who came down and scouted me out. It’s been a snowball process since then.
Lam: Are all the calls that come in emergencies?
Ghanbari: There’s a mix. Some of them hit the button by mistake. Some of them are having life-or-death emergencies. And some of them literally just want someone to talk to. Or it’s roadside assistance.
Lam: Who are the people who just want someone to talk to?
Ghanbari: It’s a smaller percentage. Usually, if those calls come in then there’s a bigger underlying problem that we have to pick up on. Sometimes, you'll have somebody who is in a situation where they need roadside assistance. They'll call in and they're just kind of talking to you, not understanding that what they need someone to come out there and change the tires, because they don't always know what services are included.
Lam: What do you do to prepare for work?
Ghanbari: We’ve had a lot of training. Here at OnStar, they do a lot of medical training and protocol training. We do have some customer service that we come in with. So it’s a mix of everything. We follow specific processes, but certain calls fit inside the box, and certain calls fit outside. It's a lot of problem solving, customer service, and process. Somewhere in the middle is exactly what you need to answer the call. We figure it out on a call-to-call basis.
Lam: Are the people calling emotionally distressed? And how do you handle that?
Ghanbari: The higher the stress level, the easier the calls to be honest—because they need you. It's a lot easier to calm somebody down when they know you know what to do, than it is to try to figure out what the issue is first and then have to figure it out. So I find that the more stressful calls are the easier ones to take.
For myself, the more panicked the person is, because I do speak very quickly normally, I tend to slow down because I know that they need me to get them through this. If they're in a crisis situation or a real emergency situation, they’re more susceptible to listen. If someone doesn’t know what to do, then they’re more accepting and more willing to take what you have to say to heart and actually follow your instructions. Whereas, if they half believe you, then they'll think they know it all and kind of go with it.
Lam: You received the Dispatcher of the Year award for your work in helping to deliver two babies. Were those calls stressful?
Ghanbari: Yes! The call always comes in a little stressed when it’s a baby call. There is nothing calm about having a baby. Especially once the mother realizes that this is not a false alarm, that it’s actually time. And then they realize that they’re not going to make it to the hospital, and that they’re in a car. Then, it’s more reassuring to say “Don’t worry, we’re going to get you through this, we know what to do, we have training for this, and we’re going to walk you through it.” Once they have your trust—and they know that you do know what you’re doing and that you can help them do this—then they’re calm and they get through it.
Both times, we had a really exciting outcome. But while you’re taking the call, you don’t really know the endings to these calls. Sometimes, the calls end right then and there on the line for you. But you don’t know what happens after, because once the first responders arrive on scene that’s the end of the call for us.
Both of these particular calls were on the way to the hospital, and they didn't make it. We always think that we have more time for some reason! The first call, she wasn't due yet. She was having some contractions, and it wasn't really following what she thought was supposed to be happening. As much as we were trying to convince her that the baby was come, she was like “We still have more time, it's okay.” The other call, the baby was coming right now. They waited until the last minute, and the baby made an entrance right then and there on the call.
Lam: What did you say to these two callers?
Ghanbari: We have a protocol that we go through, so a lot of it is just following the protocol and reassurance in the middle to let them know that we do know what we’re doing and that we’re here to help them. It’s more so just gaining trust in the beginning of these calls, if they don’t trust you they won’t let you help them.
Lam: How do you gain trust on these calls? Is there a script you follow?
Ghanbari: We don’t have a specific script we have to follow. We have things that we have to do medically by protocol, but it just wouldn't work for us to have a script. We just say what we need to say to get them to be calm, and that comes with experience. You learn certain people need certain words to calm them down. For example: “I'm here to help you,” “I'll stay with you,” “Help is on the way,” “My partner is on the line with 911 we're getting you an ETA.” Pretty much anything you want to hear when you're stressed out.
Lam: How many calls do you take a day?
Ghanbari: It’s a big mix. Probably about 40 to 50 calls in a day. Some of those are accidental key presses, some of them are actual medical emergencies, some of them are roadside, and some of them are door unlocks. It’s a mix of calls.
Lam: What does a good day for you look like?
Ghanbari: A good day is an even mix of accidental key presses and real medical emergencies. Because if you take too many medical emergencies, sometimes it's too hard on you to bounce back. Some of the calls are hard, and the accidental key presses give you the time to recover. But sometimes the accidental key presses are too much because then you forget that it's an emergency situation and you get too comfortable.
As long as I've done my job and made everybody happy, then that's what I'm here for. The feeling of helping somebody is an overwhelming joy in itself. I can't win everybody over, there's always going to be the one guy who yells at me and he's usually my favorite customer. Somedays, you feel like “Maybe I could have done more,” but then you sit down and think about how much more could you really have done? Because you're not physically there to do it.
To me, when I talk about my job, this job is personal. We're right on the line of customer service and emergency services. So it’s one of those things that people are always curious about, because they think: “What kinds of calls do you hear?” And you can’t ever explain to people all the different sounds that we hear on the phone. It is definitely the coolest job I’ve ever had.
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.