Preparedness

County Emergency Dispatchers in Indiana Discuss Pressures of Job

Cass County E911 dispatches for over 20 agencies, including five law enforcement, 11 fire, two EMS, animal control, Cass County Government Building security and an emergency management agency while maintaining regular contact with the Indiana State Police and Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

by Mitchell Kirk, Pharos-Tribune, Logansport, Ind. / December 10, 2018

(TNS) - Flashing sirens atop emergency vehicles and first responders rushing to scenes have been in the foreground of the tragedies to recently strike Cass County.

But each one of those emergencies, as with just about all local emergencies, began with a 911 call received by a headset-clad dispatcher before an array of computer monitors in a downtown Logansport office. Their job is to collect information, often from panicking callers, before determining what kind of help to send. And just because they're not at the scene of a harrowing event, it doesn't mean the job doesn't take its toll.

Cass County E911 dispatches for over 20 agencies, including five law enforcement, 11 fire, two EMS, animal control, Cass County Government Building security and an emergency management agency while maintaining regular contact with the Indiana State Police and Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

Dan McDonald, Cass County E911 director, said it's been "a tough couple months" for those working in local public safety.

Fourteen Cass County residents have died in recent months as a result of fatal house fires, vehicle crashes and an accidental shooting.

McDonald, who has worked in public safety since 1977, said he and Cass County E911 Supervisor Amber Offut have been keeping a close eye on how the wave of recent tragedies has been affecting their colleagues.

Misfortune is common in their line of work, McDonald said.

"Our dispatchers have to listen to some pretty horrific things on the phone," he said.

Cass County's emergency dispatch center currently employs 20. A minimum of three dispatchers work during the day along with three in the evenings and two on midnights.

Each hire trains for at least 12 weeks, McDonald said.

Scanner traffic, the faint hum of computer fans and an occasional phone ring from an incoming 911 call filled their work space on Friday afternoon, Dec. 7. That space consists of six work stations, each with several computer monitors. Screens for the three dispatchers on duty displayed multiple computer programs. One showed a map indicating the locations of public safety vehicles out in the field. Another provided information from incoming calls, like phone numbers, addresses and in some cases even exact locations. Yet another allows dispatchers to communicate via text message with those in an emergency.

When McDonald started out in public safety in the 1970s, he said dispatching was a job. Now it's so much more.

"Dispatch today is a true specialty," he said. "Those people are true specialists at what they do."

Technology makes most professions easier, McDonald went on to say. While it brings improvements to dispatching, he said it also makes it harder for dispatchers by giving them more to do and monitor.

That's why a good dispatcher is someone who's comfortable with technology, McDonald said. An ability to "turn on right away and focus on the mission at hand" and being capable of switching focus very quickly are also key.

For instance, it's not uncommon for 10 calls to come in for a single vehicle crash, he went on to say. When a tornado tore through Cass County in November 2013, he said every Cass County E911 station was manned and the office received 300 911 calls in the span of an hour and a half.

Being an active listener and having a proactive demeanor with a desire to be part of the solution and not the problem also make a good dispatcher, according to McDonald.

John Rogers has been a local E911 dispatcher for over 20 years. He started in 1997 for the Logansport Police Department before dispatching operations were merged in 2009.

"It can be very stressful," he said of the job. "You never know what you're going to get when you pick up the phone."

The calls that hit hardest for him are those having to do with children.

"Those are the ones that get to you," he said.

Rogers said he finds taking deep breaths help for getting through tough calls. He added he tries not to take them home with him. Going for walks helps too, he continued. He lives near Riverside Park, which is part of the city's trail system.

Despite its stresses, the job is rewarding, Rogers went on to say.

"You feel like you're doing something for somebody," he said. "We're the front lines as far as first responders."

He and McDonald said one downfall of the job is that dispatchers are often left without any closure of how a call turned out, unlike the first responders on scene.

Tara Grigsby, who's been a Cass County E911 dispatcher since April, echoed that concern, describing it as a double-edged sword.

"We get the call but then we don't actually have to deal with the people who are actually involved with the situation, so a lot of times it's a little easier than it probably should be to distance yourself from it, but then there are those calls that stick with you for a while," Grigsby said.

Shifting her attention among events unfolding simultaneously and working with irate callers to get needed information are other challenges of the job. Calls involving fatalities are the hardest for her.

Exercise is one of the ways she copes with the pressures of her profession.

"That definitely helps," she said of her frequent workouts.

Katie Pearson has been working at the local dispatch center since July 2016.

Some days — like rainy Sundays — she and her coworkers sit around waiting for the phone to ring, she said.

"And then other days it's just crazy and it doesn't stop," she said. "...No two days are ever the same."

Some days are worse than others.

"You talk to people on the worst day of their lives sometimes," she said.

Pearson said she takes the job "second by second" until her shift is over.

"I try not to let things bother me and I just go home and hug my daughter a little tighter usually every day," she said.

Alexis Lytle has been dispatching in Cass County for just over a year. She admitted she didn't know what it all entailed until she started.

"I don't think anyone really does until they've been up here and seen it," she said. "It's just completely different once you're doing it."

Like her colleagues, the hard calls stick with her.

"Some days I would go home and just cry," she said. "It's just overwhelming. You just count your blessings every day. It just makes you a more humble person and more thankful."

Over time she's learned to not take those hard calls home.

"I just leave everything at work," she said. "As soon as I get in my car, my drive home is just my time to let it all go."

Reach Mitchell Kirk at mitchell.kirk@pharostribune.com or 574-732-5130.

———

©2018 the Pharos-Tribune (Logansport, Ind.)

Visit the Pharos-Tribune (Logansport, Ind.) at www.pharostribune.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.