Odds are you’ve never heard Amber Olivia Dowd’s voice. But many Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers in East Tennessee know and love hearing her voice and are thankful for it. She works deep behind the scenes in a small office at the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) Region 1 Headquarters in Strawberry Plains. But she does not work for TDOT.
The only job Dowd, 43, has ever had is wearing headsets with a microphone as an emergency services/public service dispatcher. She is in her 16th year as the senior dispatcher for the THP’s District 1, covering 25 counties in East Tennessee. This can turn into a high-stress job in a heartbeat or a snap of your fingers.
Hers is a voice that most of the troopers in District 1 know. Some have met her. Most haven’t, save for recognizing her calming and soothing voice during the worst of times.
And she’s highly proficient in her chosen profession, honored twice as THP’s District 1 Dispatcher of the Year – in 2009 and 2015.
She is a native of Gatlinburg, but was reared in West Palm Beach, Florida, when her family moved there when she was 7. They returned to East Tennessee in 2005. “The weather and the hurricanes finally got to us and we moved back,” she said. Dowd worked as an emergency dispatcher for the town of Greenacres, Florida, just southwest of West Palm Beach, for five years. Two years after moving back THP hired her on June 1, 2007.
While in Greenacres, she married her husband, Ted, who was a radio technician where she worked. Today he fills the same role with the Tennessee Advanced Communications Network at the TDOT office. During her 16 years with the THP, they have had three children – Parker, 15, Gavin, 12 and Tory, 6. She also has two adult stepchildren, Brekka and Riley.
THP Dispatch Supervisor Christy Pickens is quick to talk about Dowd. “I think she’s so effective because she always stays calm and she’s very patient. She never raises her voice no matter what the situation is. Everyone here looks up to Amber. No one ever gets mad at her. I wish I had a whole roomful of Ambers.”
Pickens supervises 15 dispatchers, with either three or four working on each of the three shifts.
On July 23, 2009, Dowd answered a call about a trooper, Rusty Carr, being involved in a bad accident. “I knew something was wrong because a civilian was calling us on Rusty’s radio,” she remembers. “He was unconscious.” How she handled this situation was part of the reason she was named Dispatcher of the Year in 2009.
The THP, in recognizing her, added these details about her nomination: “…. During this stressful and emotional situation, Dispatcher Dowd remained calm in her demeanor and actions. She immediately notified her supervisors and made all notifications to ensure Trooper Carr received medical attention as soon as possible, calling for ambulances and she handled the influx of calls coming from the media and other police who desired information about the crash. After her shift ended, Dowd drove (from the old THP headquarters on Kingston Pike) to the UT Medical Center to check on Trooper Carr’s condition.”
The majority of the calls into the Dispatch Center come from the 25 counties notifying THP about wrecks and medical situations on Interstates 40, 81 and I-26 in upper East Tennessee and all state highways in the district. She answers traffic stop calls from troopers and the public calling in to report reckless drivers on the number 847. “We get calls about cars stopped on the side of the roads when the driver or someone has a medical call. A lot of the truck drivers notify us about wrecks and other issues.”
And then there are the other calls ….
- “We get calls about animals on the interstates and highways. Deer, bears, cows, elk, goats. A lot of those are in Unicoi County and Campbell County.”
- “In the spring we have call after call about The Dragon between Blount County and North Carolina. Day after day. We have one trooper who just about lives on The Dragon.” She’s referring to Trooper Evan Lane, who we featured as a Hero on 02/27/23.
- The wrecks with multiple fatalities are hard on her and any dispatcher. She recalls a wreck in Blount County in May 2015 on Highway 411. Six people died, including five members of a single family. She worked that call. In October 2008 five people, including four Tennessee high school cheerleaders, were killed in a fiery head-on collision on a foggy, slippery state Highway 27 in Scott County. She spent her whole shift working that call. “I remember both of those calls. I held my emotions in but when I got home, I cried. It was so sad. It gets to the troopers too. You just don’t see it.”
- How about the most unusual calls? “I’ve had two of those. They were both naked men walking down I-40 and I-81. One was drunk and the other one on drugs. They survived.”
Dowd, who lives in Kodak with her family, loves her job. “I don’t know anything else. It’s all I have ever done. I enjoy helping people and making sure they get home safe. I can’t imagine ever doing anything else.”
And here’s one more nugget about Dowd from Supervisor Pickens: “Amber is just one of those people that if you’re having a bad day, she will make it better. I can honestly say that I do NOT know anyone that does not like Amber or that has anything bad to say about Amber. Everything is always positive. I think she is the ONLY person besides my mother that I can say that about.”
Tom King has been the editor of newspapers in Texas and California and also worked in Tennessee and Georgia.