Last month, Henry County announced that Tierra Dillard would become the new Director of the Martinsville-Henry County 911 Center, filling a vacancy created by then-Director J.R. Powell’s selection as new Deputy County Administrator of Henry County. She moved into her new position July 1.
A graduate of Bassett High School, Dillard joined the 911 Center in 2008 through an unexpected twist of fate.
“I feel like a traitor because I’m not like everyone else. I didn’t eat, sleep, and breathe public safety and didn’t really have that inner drive that I want to help people from a young age,” Dillard explained. “I applied for an administrative job here, and they had already hired someone for that job so they asked me if I would be interested in dispatch.
The job, Dillard said, consisted of 12-hour rotating shifts “and it kind of scared me in the beginning because I had young children and it was just me at the time, but I gave it a shot. They say that when you come here, you either love it or you find out it’s just not for you. I happened to be one of those people that absolutely loved it. I could not imagine doing anything else.”
Dillard said that, in addition to the rush of having helped a person, “it’s the adrenaline of things happening. When things get really busy, just trying to hang on and all the things coming at you and being able to handle all that. It’s the adrenaline and the satisfaction of knowing that I handled all of that, that we got everybody the help they needed, and it all ended well. I’m an adrenaline junkie,” she said with a laugh.
Besides those rushes of adrenaline, Dillard’s work at the center also connected her with Eddie Dillard, then a Martinsville City Police Officer, now a State Trooper, who she married in 2014. Their daughters are 21-years-old, Dillard said. One works for the Henry County Sheriff’s Office and just completed jail school and the other was just hired by the Department of Social Services.
“We are very intertwined in the community,” she said.
The couple also have a six-year-old son “who is giving us all what-for,” she laughed. “He’s a spoiled little fella.”
In 2010, Dillard was promoted to Administrative Communications Technician and became Deputy Director in 2017.
When the county announced she had been tapped for the director role, the release stated that she was the first African American and first woman to hold the position.
“I think it’s great for the county that there’s diversity,” Dillard, who is bi-racial, said. “I’m pretty sure that’s why they wanted to highlight my background, but to me, I just feel like I’ve tried to work really hard to ascent to this position. I felt like I was trying to put myself in a good place to take over if they would allow me, so I feel like my work speaks for itself. Obviously, diversity in today’s world is a factor, so I’m glad that I checked some boxes for somebody somewhere, but I definitely worked very hard to get here.”
She continues to work to better herself as well. In addition to amassing a number of certifications, Dillard earned a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Old Dominion University in 2017 and is currently pursuing a Master of Public Administration from Liberty University.
Dillard credits her predecessor, Powell, for his years of leadership with the center.
“J.R. was a really great director,” she said. “I learned a lot of things from him. He was never quick to act. I tend to be more emotional, and he was more reserved. He would ponder things and make a very level-headed decision at the end. That’s something that I’ve taken away from his leadership to hopefully incorporate in mine because I can be a little spirited at times.”
Additionally, she credits Powell for his work in shaping the center into what it is today. “I’m inheriting a great center,” she said. Powell “was wonderful. I feel like I’m stepping into a well-oiled machine.”
However, Dillard said she is concerned with morale in the center, which currently has three vacant positions.
“We have a lot of vacancies because people do this job for a period of time, and it can be overwhelming. Vacancies have been coming up because people have decided that they’ve had enough of 911, so morale is a big focus of mine.”
Dillard knows first-hand the mental toll working as a dispatcher can take. She recalled a shift early on in her career when a call came in and a distraught woman was on the line. Dillard said the woman’s husband had taken his own life in their home.
“I distinctly remember that because my focus was on trying to get her to calm down in the worst possible moment of her life, and I think the call went well. At that moment, I felt like I had done a really good job because, by the time we got off the phone, she was not screaming, she was trying to find her dog, she had gone outside to wait for law enforcement. I just felt like I had done a good job that day.”
In situations like that, “you don’t even think about what’s happening,” Dillard said. “You just think, ‘I need to get you help right now.’ After I got off the phone, I thought, ‘wow, that was really sad,’ but on the phone that wasn’t even my thought. I just needed to send her help. That (call) probably warranted a walk away from my console.”
Dillard said she is trying to keep spirits up in ways large and small, and on the day of this interview, she was taking a shift alongside the dispatchers, working shoulder to shoulder with them. Her shift was scheduled to end at midnight.
“I think that’s helped because they know that I’m here. I want to dig in just like them. If I can work to keep somebody else from getting called in and they can spend time with their family, that’s important to me. I think that has helped.”
Beyond that, and showing appreciation with gestures like bringing in donuts or coffee, Dillard said she is “just trying to listen, trying to understand what they’re going through, and trying to make it better. I think listening to employees is going to be the biggest thing.”
The center, she said, “is state of the art. Everything is up-to-date, and our equipment is top-notch, so I really don’t want to change anything, I just want to retain the people we have and try to recruit people who want to work here and will be happy here for a long period of time.”
While Dillard knows that there are still many things she has to learn in her new role, she is excited to be leading the 911 Center.
“I whole-heartedly feel like I will end my career with Henry County at the 911 Center,” she said. “I love it here.”