Twelve-hour shifts are the life of a dispatcher. The job is stressful. There's always something to do, or more accurately, multiple things to do.
(TNS) - Inside the depths of the Robertson Building at the corner of North Winter Street and West Maple Avenue sits the temporary home of Lenawee County Central Dispatch.
Someone is always there. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, someone is there.
Twelve-hour shifts are the life of a dispatcher. The job is stressful. There's always something to do, or more accurately, multiple things to do. Each dispatcher sits in front of six computer monitors, each with a different window or software program open. Multitasking is a requirement for the job.
There are two flat-screen TVs, in addition to the multitude of computer screens, for when the rare moment of down time does occur. The Detroit Tigers game was Thursday afternoon's showing.
The Daily Telegram went inside Central Dispatch to get a better idea of what life is like for the first, first responders.
What's your emergency?
Lenawee County Central Dispatch is part of the sheriff's office. It has 15 full-time dispatchers with another in training.
There are normally five in the center at a time. From 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. there is a minimum of three. From 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. the minimum is two.
The center dispatches for 12 police agencies, a number of fire agencies and is also certified for emergency medical dispatch.
Dispatchers follow a specific script with emergency medical dispatch, according to Corinne Perdue, deputy director for central dispatch. The script has been approved the county medical control doctor.
Questions include address, age, breathing status, conscious status, what happened, gender, and so on.
Perdue said callers will sometimes get frustrated by the number of questions they are asked.
"People do not understand why we are asking those questions," she said.
But those questions — for medical emergencies as well as others, such as fires — serve a purpose. The more information the better so the first responders can prepare for the scene.
Lt. David Aungst, the dispatch center director, gave the example of a car fire. A dispatcher could ask just enough questions to obtain the address and that there is a car fire. But it's more valuable to know if the car is in a garage and if the garage is attached to a house.
Those factors determine the manpower and fire trucks that would be dispatched, Aungst explained.
"They are responsible to ask the right questions to ensure the responders know what they're responding to," he said.
An ever-growing volume of calls
The county's 911 center fielded 164,784 calls in 2018. There's little reason to think that number will decrease.
Perdue mentions drugs as one reason, but Aungst points to technology.
"There are more cellular phones out there," he said. "With the increase of cellular phones, it's easier for people to call."
Aungst said more than 80% of 911 calls come from cellphones.
Cellphones do not give an exact location. When a caller dials 911 on their cellphone, dispatch receives a radius. A circle pops up on one of the screens, indicating a general area for the caller. How finite that radius is depends on location, cell service and terrain, Perdue said.
Technology is moving toward identifying a cell user's exact location, but it's not quite there yet.
"We get a radius, it's better, but it's still not specific enough, and that's what we're trying to fine tune," Aungst said.
Dispatch can also receive texts. The 911 center received 123 texts last year.
Perdue and Dispatcher T.J. Smith simulated a 911 text Thursday. Perdue texted 911 and almost instantaneously a red flashing 911 box popped up on Smith's screen. The dispatcher then responded. The conversation continues until the dispatcher has enough information.
"Call if you can, text if you can't" is the motto. The reasoning is simple. It's easier to get the information needed over the phone. Being able to read a person's tone and inflections is a needed skill for a dispatcher.
A domestic assault, intruder or hostage situation are appropriate reasons to text, as is if someone is hearing impaired.
Pocket dials do happen. And though accidental, dispatch is required to follow up with a call. If there is no answer, then a text is sent. Perdue said oftentimes people won't answer if 911 calls them back. But no worries. They're just doing their job.
"We never leave any call unended," she said.
Wanted: a confident multitasker
The 911 center has 16 dispatchers but it's not nearly enough, Perdue said. There is funding for up to 20. Finding good candidates is a challenge.
Confidence is key
"People are calling you for a life-changing moment," Aungst said. "... You want that feeling that you really are talking to someone who knows what they're doing and getting you what you need."
There is an instinctual skill needed as well. To read voices, pick up on when something may be wrong, even if the caller isn't explicitly saying it.
"And that's what's so hard to teach," Perdue said. "That's what's so hard to find. ... It's take a very special person to do this job."
Smith is a lieutenant with the Cambridge Township Fire Department, in addition to his dispatching duties. Part of his firefighter training included sitting in with a dispatcher.
"There was just something that wow'd me," Smith said.
Smith is deaf in one ear, which presented challenges but ones he's managed to overcome.
"It's tough," he said. "I never thought I'd be good on the phone."
No two are the same
"911 what's your emergency," is just one aspect of the job. Dispatchers are also tasked with prioritizing phone calls, dispatching fire and police units and monitoring radio traffic all the while entering information into the computer.
"You've got to have that dispatcher ear," as Smith calls it. A four-year dispatcher, Smith said there's also the element of knowing each other's workloads.
Dispatcher training is extensive. It's not until after six to nine months of training before a dispatcher is ready to be on their own.
During that time, dispatchers must complete 40 hours of basic training. Skills include interpersonal communication, radio communications, call intake and handling, and telephone etiquette.
Another 40 hours of advanced training follows basic. Skills include handling domestic violence calls, suicide calls, homeland security and stress management.
Dispatchers are required to complete another 24 credits of continuing education every 24 months, as well as 24 hours of emergency medical dispatch certification.
Fully trained is far from fully experienced, as Perdue and Aungst, longtime dispatchers themselves, can attest to. They say it takes at least two years to get the full scope, but even then, there's always something training doesn't cover.
"I was a dispatcher 22 years, and I learned something new every single day on that job," Perdue said.
"No two calls are ever the same," Aungst added. "That's something they have to get used to. I've been here 29 years, and I still see things for the first time."
A necessary support system
Thursday marked 20 years for Dispatcher Cheri Louden. Surprisingly, Louden said the job has changed for the better.
"You don't feel as overwhelmed," she said.
Asked how she handles the demands, Louden relies on her husband's listening ear.
"Once I've told him, it's a release," she said.
Smith agreed and said he's learned to enjoy his days off.
"I think you have to have a decent support system at home," he said.
Dispatchers also know the officers who they communicate with which extends the support system. Aungst said it's a small enough group that everyone knows everyone.
The services of the dispatchers are not lost on Lenawee County Sheriff Troy Bevier.
"Our Dispatchers are the unsung heroes providing a lifeline to those who need help and dial 911," the sheriff said in a email.
And of course, there's a family element inside the dispatch center. Spend as much time together as this group does, it's bound to happen.
"They are their own support system," Perdue said.
Which might be part of the reason why 20 years hasn't felt like it for Louden.
"The time has gone by so fast," she said. "... The days go by slow, but the years go by fast."
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