As communications director of the Joint Communication Center, Columbus native Rachel Pensick ensures that dispatchers have the tools and abilities needed to gather and send important information to first responders.
A former dispatcher herself, as well as a past law enforcement officer, Pensick understands what it’s like to be on both sides of a call. It’s this distinction that allows her to perform her duties efficiently and with what Pensick values most in her line of work – empathy.
CHOOSING A CAREER
When deciding on a career path, Pensick had bounced around different ideas, but working in the law enforcement field hadn’t been one.
“The thought of being a police officer never crossed my mind growing up. The thing that crossed my mind was maybe being an attorney and then I also student taught for one year in high school to see if it would be something I’d like,” Pensick said.
After graduating high school, Pensick moved to Lincoln where she landed a job as a secretary for the Nebraska State Patrol. She worked in that position for two years before returning to her hometown.
A position for dispatcher opened up at the Columbus Police Department, and Pensick applied and was hired in 2005. She stayed on the job for 11 years.
“Every job serves a purpose and I felt good about the job that dispatchers do in providing support to the first responders. We’re not really considered first responders -- some states don’t consider dispatchers first responders -- but without dispatchers there to be that first contact, it wouldn’t go quite as smoothly as you need it to,” Pensick said. “You help citizens, you help first responders. Sometimes you're a counselor on the phone, sometimes you’re more of a secretary, sometimes you’re talking people through life-saving instructions. There are a lot of things to like about it.”
Transitioning from her work as a dispatcher to the other side of the call as a police officer, also for the Columbus Police Department, seemed like the right step for Pensick.
“Working as a dispatcher for a lot of years, I felt like there was something more that I could contribute,” she said. “At the time, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for growth in the dispatch area. When the position for an officer opened, I just got myself in shape and took a shot at it and was hired.”
My entire adult work history I’ve been in some type of law enforcement setting. It just seemed like a natural progression.”
As a patrol officer, Pensick enjoyed the change. Rather than in the office fielding emergency calls, she was out in the community getting to know the residents of Columbus.
“A lot of times, even though it might be something routine that we do on a daily basis, a lot of times in people’s everyday lives, they might only interact with an officer once or twice during their lifetime,” Pensick said. “Usually that’s a big deal to them because what they’re going through is a big deal to them. I liked knowing that, even though things may seem little to me, maybe they seem big to the people we’re helping. I hoped I served the citizens well and did what their expectations were as an officer.”
A project several years in the making, the communications systems at the Platte County Sheriff’s Department and Columbus Police Department combined into the Joint Communication Center last year.
Pensick was hired as communications director for the newly consolidated center in March.
“It’s been going really well. We are a new department in a new building; (it’s) a lot of changes,” she said. “The employees that were previously dispatching for Platte County did come over and the dispatchers at the police department did come over as well. It’s been a lot for them, as well as adjusting to different technologies – they’re the same but a little different.”
Pensick said her goal is to continue serving the citizens of Columbus and Platte County more efficiently than when the communications systems were running separately.
ON THE JOB
Pensick’s experiences as both a dispatcher and patrol officer helped her gain an understanding of the struggles that others face that can’t be seen on the outside looking in.
“Growing up in a large place like Columbus that isn’t a large city (and) doesn’t have the problems that you see in the news, but it does happen in our small town, too,” she said. “My parents are still married and we aren’t a broken family, you think that your neighbors… grow up in that same dynamic.
“It opened my eyes and it allowed you to emphasize with people you come across with, the more that you deal with people’s struggles. Just learning that you’ve got to treat people like the way you would want your own family members to be treated if you were in that position.”
Pensick tries to instill the empathy she learned on the job in her employees.
“I always tell my dispatchers, ‘You’ve got to put yourself in your callers’ positions. What if this was your family member? What if we were sending officers to respond to this and this was your loved one?’” Pensick said.
“It gives you a broader spectrum of what people in our community are going through. And when you see it first hand, it’s easier for you to relate to them and relate to their struggles. It changes the way that you interact with people going forward.”
IN THE COMMUNITY
It’s while interviewing for a dispatcher position at the Columbus Police Department that Pensick’s life took another turn: she met her future husband Bobby while entering the building.
“When she applied for dispatcher, we kind of met and then we met during her working with the police department,” said Bobby, who is employed as a community service technician with CPD.
Bobby describes Rachel as good-hearted and always willing to help others, which are important traits to have in her career.
“She’s not the kind of person that sees somebody fail. She’s the type of person that helps somebody be the best they can be. She’s pretty much willing to help anybody anytime they need it,” Bobby said. “She gets along with everybody, she tries to be friends with everybody, very outgoing. She’s not afraid to voice her opinion, too. If somebody’s got a question or wants to hear something, she’ll let them know.”
They married in 2006 and have three children, Katelyn, 13; Addi, 9; and Ty, 7.
Pensick considers her family her number one priority and is very involved in her kids’ lives. She sits on the St. Anthony’s Home and School board.
“Since my kids have started preschool there, I’ve been involved in some capacity or another (to) help support my kids’ school through volunteering and fundraising,” she noted.
Bobby is very involved in their kids’ school as well and serves on the St. Anthony’s School board; he also volunteers his time as a coach in their children’s sporting activities, which Rachel supports.
“We’re really family-oriented so we’ll be involved in all our kids do,” Bobby said. “It’s nice just being involved and helping out at the school.”
Pensick had planned on volunteering as an assistant coach for her daughter’s softball activities but, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that has been placed on hold.
No matter where her career ends up taking her, Pensick knows that the Columbus community will remain in her future.
“It’s home to us,” she said. “I really wouldn’t consider raising my children anywhere else.”
Hannah Schrodt is the news editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach her via email at email@example.com.
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