THE VOICE ON THE OTHER END: This dispatcher doesn't need sight to save lives Russell Deming, who has been a Quincy police dispatcher for about 30 years, is blind. A software program takes text on the dispatcher's computer screen and turns it into audio output. (GARY HIGGINS/The Patriot Ledger)
By DON CONKEY
The Patriot Ledger
QUINCY - When a caller dials 911 and reaches Quincy Police Department dispatcher Russell Deming, he has no way of knowing that the man on the other end of the line is blind.
Not that anyone would care. For those in need of immediate help, Deming is the person to talk to.
''I do the same thing everybody else does in there,'' Deming said of the police communications center, where phone lines are continually manned by three or four dispatchers.
''If there is a 911 emergency, you are getting the same trained person as with any other dispatcher,'' Deming said. ''I can do the same things they can do, (I'm) very capable of doing what they do.''
Deming said it proudly, but he is far past the point where he has to defend his abilities to anyone.
The 55-year-old Weymouth resident has been a Quincy police dispatcher for almost 30 years, and, among his police colleagues, he long ago made the transition from ''blind dispatcher'' to ''dispatcher.'' To them, his blindness is an unimportant afterthought.
''He's a great dispatcher. He does his job very well,'' said officer Ryan Donnelly, a dispatcher who has known Deming for about four years.
Deming works with the help of a computer software program that takes text on the dispatcher's screen and converts it to audio output.
On any 911 call, the caller's name, address and telephone number appear on a dispatcher's screen.
''Essentially, I can 'read' everything that's on the screen, through voice. It talks to me,'' Deming said.
There is very little time lost in the conversion to audio, an important factor when 911 calls are being handled.
Despite being blind since birth, he has never had more difficulty than other dispatchers, Deming said.
He was born prematurely, at 7½ months, and was in an incubator for about a month.
''In those years, they used to put in as much high-flow oxygen as they could - just straight, pure oxygen,'' he said. ''What they didn't know is that it destroys the optic nerve.''
He can see a little bit of light and dark, ''but it's of no value, really,'' he said.
Despite the blindness, he is a man who has managed to successfully navigate through life.
''I've always faced adversity pretty well,'' Deming said. ''I seem to adapt pretty well to whatever they throw at me.''
He was a student at the Perkins School for the Blind from kindergarten through high school, then went to Boston College and graduated with a bachelor of science degree in economics.
He started working with the Quincy police in 1978, in the detective bureau, typing up interview reports that had been recorded. He moved into the communications department a year later and has been there ever since.
''There's a lot that goes on in there, and each call has its own characteristics,'' Deming said. ''It might be trouble breathing. Possible heart attack. Woman in labor. Gunshot wounds. Or talk somebody out of taking their life.''
And all dispatchers know ''that one mistake can cost somebody's life.''
It is extremely important for a dispatcher to be able to calm a 911 caller and take control of the situation, Deming said. He thinks his compassion helps him in that regard.
''I give people a break when they call,'' he said. ''You have to realize that these people are in situations, and one situation can be bad for somebody and not as bad for somebody else.''
Compassion is something that can't be learned, Deming said.
''You can't teach me how to be nice to somebody. You really can't. You can read all the books in the world, but it comes from your heart.''
When Deming isn't working, he's playing - literally. He is a guitar player for the classic-rock band Chowdaheads, which performs throughout New England.
He and his wife, Jeanne, celebrated their 21st wedding anniversary last Thursday.
''There's nobody quite like her,'' Deming said. ''She's an angel - a very, very special person.''
Deming's colleagues rely on him each night for his expertise.
''I wouldn't hesitate to say that Russ is the backbone of the team up there,'' Donnelly said. ''He's confident. He's done it for so long.
''I swear he has a Rolodex in his brain. You have to go into the computer to find a number, and he'll know it right off the top of his head. Just little things like that, that save time, that make my job easier and other people's job easier.
''I don't think people would define him with his disability. He's just Russ, a great guy.''
Don Conkey may be reached at email@example.com .
Copyright 2007 The Patriot Ledger
Transmitted Thursday, December 13, 2007