Dona Carter spent seven and a half years as the voice that sends out firefighters, ambulances and police cars on emergency calls. One day, she thought, she'd be the one in the police car taking the call.
Today, Officer Carter, 32, patrols a section of west Towson as a member of the Baltimore County Police Department.
When she got the chance to train as a police officer, she went big. She graduated at the top of her class and earned the physical fitness award for females and the top academics award.
"As a kid, it's all I wanted to do. It was always in the family and it was always interesting to me," Carter said.
Her father, Mark Carter, is a corporal at the Parkville precinct, and other relatives are also cops.
But after graduating from Towson University with a degree in sociology, she discovered she'd have to wait for her dream to come true.
"Dispatch happened to be hiring so that's what I went for," she said.
Carter was hired to field 911 calls and after three years she trained as a police dispatcher. She never let go of her dream of being on the other side of those calls.
Finally, patience paid off.
"I got the call I had been waiting for," she said. "I got time off to prepare myself mentally and physically."
Training would start June 15, 2013, and last six months.
Carter thought she was prepared physically for the demands of the police academy, located on the grounds of the Dundalk campus of the Community College of Baltimore County.
She started running five miles a day and did lots of push-ups and sit-ups.
"When I got in, I found out I should have been doing different things," she said.
Physical training included lots of sprinting, lots of hills and steps.
"It's a whole different ball game than running five miles," she said with a laugh.
"That first week was very tough," she said. But Carter wasn't going to be discouraged. "I had waited so long. Nothing was going to stop me."
The day started early with "roll call." Police academy students have their uniforms checked every day, they march and raise the flag.
Three months were spent in the classroom. Cops have to learn a lot — police procedure, elements of crime, two classes in constitutional law.
Carter said she enjoyed constitutional law the most: "What we can do, what we can't, and why," she said. "It was a lot of memorizing."
Then three months were spent learning practical skills, including shooting a gun — something she'd never done — and driving a police cruiser.
Throughout there was plenty of physical training, such as defensive tactics and water survival skills.
And, there were challenges beyond class work. Some days were scorching hot. "You could see the heat coming up off the field," she said.
So they compensated by starting physical training before sunrise — then had to deal with mosquitoes. "They were miserable," Carter said.
And, when she and her classmates went home, they weren't done.
"There was a lot more homework than I expected," she said.
Carter said you have to make sacrifices to get through the academy. She said she never got to see her fiancé, who works at dispatch 2 to 10 p.m.
"It's your whole life," she said. "The academy is your whole life."
When the six months came to a close, Carter was one of 34 to receive their badges as members of the Baltimore County Police Department.
"It was the best day ever," she said.
Her parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and her fiancé attended graduation, along with friends and colleagues from dispatch.
It wasn't until the ceremony she learned about her top honors. "That made it more exciting," she said.
After two days off, Carter went to work. As the top student in the class, she had the privilege of choosing her assignment. She selected Precinct 6, Towson.
"That was my first choice," she said. Carter said she'd gotten to know the area better when she was assigned the Towson precinct as a dispatcher. "I thought I could learn a lot it Towson," she said.
On the beat
Training isn't done when academy days are over. For two months, new police officers are paired with an experienced cop to learn the routine and their beat.
Carter's first day was a Sunday, a quiet day spent checking out her car's equipment and patrolling. "I pulled my first traffic stop," she said.
During field training, Carter said she was in awe of her fellow officer's knowledge of the area he patrolled. "He knew every tiny, tiny street in his area," she said.
Since then, Carter has gotten to know all the little streets that make up her patrol area.
"I definitely know my way around," she said.
Carter handles calls at the county jail and area hospitals. She's tracked down stolen cars. She keeps her eye on the apartment complexes that house local college students, especially when students are on break.
Once, she had to chase a 17-year-old boy. Weighed down with her radio, gun and other tools of the trade, she caught him.
"I felt pretty good about that," she said.
Carter said she looks forward to night shift. "There are a different type of calls, she said, including robberies. Day work usually involves answering calls about the things that happen overnight, including burglaries and car break-ins. That's when she answers calls from motorists who leave their cars running to warm up. "That's something we deal with in the mornings," she said.
"I didn't know there was so much paperwork," she said. But she said she understands how important it all is.
She knows she's got a job that's had plenty of negative press around the country, but all she has felt is support.
The citizens here in Baltimore County support us, especially here in Towson," Carter said. "People go out of their way to say thank you for what we do."
Her commanding officer, Capt. Jay Landsman Jr., had nothing but praise for the newcomer.
"With this job, attitude is everything," he said. "That is one think that strikes me about Dona is a good attitude. She's always upbeat, positive."
With 127 officers in his precinct, Landsman said that kind of attitude stands out — and is important in a service-oriented organization like a police department.
Landsman previously worked with Carter's father at the Cockeysville precinct. "I knew him well," he said.
"She's off to a good start," Landsman said. "Her attitude is going to help her succeed."
Carter has nothing but praise for her colleagues at the Towson precinct who she said are quick to help each other out. "I work with a great group of people," she said.
She's achieved her dream job — for now.
"I hope to be a detective some day," she said.