When Robert Scott Elley started working as a part-time emergency dispatcher in East Hampton in 1981, things were certainly different. If there was a fire or people needed an ambulance, they called a seven-digit phone number for the fire department and a single dispatcher manning the phone line would push a button alerting emergency workers, then make up a report on a typewriter.
Sitting in front of four screens with highly specialized applications like customized GPS mapping and tracking systems, Mr. Elley ended his 33-year career by signing off over the townwide paging system during a regularly scheduled radio test at noon on Friday, which happened to be his 55th birthday.
Using the old call letters used for East Hampton townwide fire “K-E-E-2-6-1” and “K-R-X-4-0-2” for the Bridgehampton Fire Department (East Hampton Village Emergency Communications stopped dispatching for Bridgehampton several years ago), Mr. Elley’s voice cracked during his seconds-long goodbye.
“This is dispatcher number 18 signing off permanently,” he said in front of a small crowd of onlookers who cheered for him when he was done.
What he got back, over the air, were congratulations, thank-yous, and well wishes from chiefs and officers throughout the six fire departments and two ambulance agencies the village has toned out over the years. Dispatchers elsewhere in the county also called in, and his cellphone did not stop buzzing.
“I’ve been listening to you since I was 3 years old,” East Hampton Fire Department Chief Richard Osterberg Jr. said. “That’s a Roger,” Mr. Elley plainly replied in his signature way.
Many of the officers calling in referred to Scottie or Elmo, a nickname that goes back to the late 1960s when at 11 or 12 he cut lawns in the Oakview Trailer Park. He was always hanging around and the owner of the park, Dick Corwin, joked that he was like the pesky next-door neighbor named Elmo in the comic strip “Blondie” who was always at Dagwood Bumstead’s house. The name just stuck, he said.
Growing up in Freetown, he always wanted to become a New York City firefighter. “But, guess what? I’m afraid of heights,” he said. His father, also Robert Elley, was a 62-year member of the fire department and a HAM radio operator, so scanners, pagers, and citizens’ band radios were always making sweet noise in his house. “You used to have to move your antenna around the house to get a signal. But you could talk to anybody on the CB,” Mr. Elley recalled. “That’s kind of how I got into the dispatching end of that.”
After he graduated from East Hampton High School in 1978, he joined the fire department. He served as chief from 1994 to 1995, and an assistant chief from 1991 to 1994, and then again from 1999 to 2002. He is still a member.
After working four years as a part-timer, he became a full-time dispatcher with the East Hampton Fire Department in June of 1985. When the village’s Emergency Communications Building was built (it was completed in 1991), the fire and police dispatching departments combined. There was talk them of combining with the town police dispatchers, a discussion that is still going on all these years later.
“I don’t know where the time went,” Mr. Elley said, looking back at his long career and how much his job changed. “Now with the 911 system computerized, we can pinpoint exactly where you are. Back then, 911 was just a phone, and you’d pick up and go, ‘Hello, where are you?’ You look where it is now; it was so antiquated then. But we got help to everybody that needed it,” he said.
Dispatchers had to know every street, but oftentimes locals reported being at a local landmark and dispatchers rarely needed to even pick up a map. “People back then would give you a place. ‘I’m at Cliff Foster’s farm.’ Guess what? I know where that is.”
J.P. Foster, the senior supervising dispatcher for the East Hampton Village Emergency Communications Department, said Mr. Elley’s retirement leaves a void. “His knowledge of local history was key to the department. He certainly saw a lot of change in his years of service and he adapted well. He will be sorely missed,” he said.
Mr. Elley’s voice became so familiar on the air that firemen could tell by his intonation whether it was going to be a serious fire or not. “It’s that personal contact you have with the guys on the radio, and you need that,” he said.
In the days long before caller ID, you never knew who was going to be on the other end of the phone, but one thing has remained constant: Dispatchers are the first to render aid. Mr. Elley remembered taking a call from the wife of a fellow fireman who called in hysterics when their young son was having a seizure and seemed to be choking. “Still they say, ‘You helped save our son.’ Now he’s a big grown adult,” Mr. Elley said.
That’s what the past three decades have been about for him — helping the community. “People call up and they’re in duress, and I could be the calming voice at the end of the phone,” he said. “People think we just sit there, and we could be sitting there for 10 hours and not having anything, but when that one call comes in, bam, you’ve got to know what to do.”
Mr. Elley said he decided to retire after he built up 35 years in the New York State retirement system, having worked for the school before becoming a dispatcher. It was evident that dispatching was a job he loves and that has become a part of his life. What he will miss the most is the camaraderie, he said. But the dispatchers aren’t letting him slip away completely; they’ve already made requests for his famous meals. Some may remember that he cooked with Ina Garten on her Food Network television show “Barefoot Contessa” in 2012.
“You’ll be seeing me around,” Mr. Elley said to one Montauk officer who called in after his sign off.
“I don’t doubt it, but is anybody going to know what I’m talking about going forward?” the man asked.
“That they will,” Mr. Elley assured him.