Hometown Heroes: Greta Ernst spent 40 years as a Concord Police dispatcher

  • Greta Ernst, who retired at the end of 2021, spent 40 years as a dispatcher for the Concord Police Department, stands at her favorite place, White Park in Concord. Ernst said she would come to the park after her most trying shifts. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Greta Ernst, who retired at the end of 2021, spent 40 years as a dispatcher for the Concord Police Department, stands at her favorite place, White Park in Concord. Ernst said she would come to the park after her most trying shifts. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 2/20/2022 8:00:34 PM
Modified: 2/20/2022 8:00:13 PM

Any Concord resident who called the police between 1981 and this December had a good chance of hearing the voice of Greta Ernst.

Ernst, who retired at the end of 2021, spent 40 years as a dispatcher for the Concord Police Department. In a typical 8-10 hour shift, she fielded between 60 to 80 calls transferred from a 911 operator. During her shifts, the 60-year-old did everything from sending help to a serious car crash to helping find a missing person.

“If you can talk someone out of committing suicide, that’s a win, that’s a good day and you carry that with you forever. The person who lost their young child and you’re able to help them, that’s a win,” Ernst said. “The most ones that I remembered were the ones when we were able to really help somebody and really make a difference.”

One call that sticks in her memory came from an injured man, lost in the woods near Concord Hospital after a suicide attempt. As Ernst remained on the phone and listened for landmarks she recognized from walks with her dog Bailey, she coordinated with officers, asking them to sound their sirens so the man could find them and get medical attention.

In her time off, those walks in nature would allow her to decompress from work and silence the noise of constant people in need. “I always try to let the bad ones go,” she said. “You remember them but you can’t let them burden you.”

The skills that were key to her success were empathy, a cool head and at times, her “mom voice” – a firm tone for giving instructions that would snap callers out of their panic and into action.

“The dispatcher tries to extract as much information from the person as possible,” Ernst said. “Sometimes what they’re not saying is more important than what they’re saying.” That’s especially true for domestic violence calls, when victims may not be able to talk openly.

As she talked and listened, Ernst played the mental chess game of juggling different emergencies and the available resources. Which car crash needs a response first? Does this call also require the Concord Fire Department, a National Guard helicopter, or a New Hampshire Fish and Game snowmobile?

“You need to be a distracted puppy, you have to be able to think in about a thousand different ways,” Ernst said. “You need to be able to handle more than one crisis at a time.”

She began working for the police department right after high school, although it wasn’t her plan to stay for four decades. When her college plans fell through, a lieutenant insisted that she fill out an application. She intended to stay only for a few years – and then never left.

“I fell in love with the job, and I fell in love with the work, and I was good at it,” she said. “It was the right fit.” The collection of plaques and letters of commendation the Concord Police Department granted Ernst over the years confirmed that the lieutenant’s hunch was correct.

During that time, Concord’s population has grown, increasing the number of calls she answered. The police department hired more dispatchers, so that two people would be on shift at a time instead of just one. She is proud of the agency’s work and what she accomplished there.

“Nothing in police work is really individual,” she said. “Everyone can bring a different piece of the puzzle.”

The most significant change during her career was better technology. When she first started, a typewriter or a pad and paper were her main tools.

By the time she retired, Ernst could look up information in multiple powerful databases, finding out quickly if a repeat caller had a mental illness or an address had seen a history of complaints. Easily accessible digital files – like notes provided by the family members of people with dementia on their walking routes and habits – made solving crises faster and easier.

In retirement, Ernst wants to focus on travel, taking walks with her dog, volunteering with her church and writing. She has published short stories and articles but hopes to write a book next. Her work is wide-ranging, from poetry to science fiction, but only includes one police procedural because she tried to keep her work life inside the Green Street station.

“But it was easy to write, because it was what I knew,” she said.


Cassidy Jensen bio photo

Cassidy Jensen has been a reporter at the Monitor, covering the city of Concord and criminal justice, since July 2021. Previously, she was a fellow at the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University, where she earned a master's degree. Her work has been published in Documented, THE CITY, Washington City Paper and Street Sense Media. When she's not at City Council meetings, you can find her hiking in the White Mountains.



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