Between the caller in crisis and the first-response agencies tasked with helping them are the Barton County 911 dispatchers. They are the often unseen “glue” that connects both and works to bring all of them home safely.
Barton County 911 Communications Director Dena Popp calls it “the thin gold line.” And like the responders they send out, they need to be prepared to deal with countless different types of situations at a moment’s notice.
What a day is like
Dispatchers at the Barton County office work 12-hour shifts, with a minimum of two dispatchers working each shift, sometimes three depending on anticipated call volume.
Because the Barton County office dispatches for seven law enforcement agencies, four EMS agencies and 10 fire departments within the county, they field, on average, between about 800 and 1,200 emergency calls from the public per month.
However, because the dispatch office also functions to connect so many agencies, Popp said dispatchers also field on average over 6,000 administrative calls per month, which includes interagency and non-emergency calls. These can include several different types of calls, from officers seeking warrant information, to animals at large, to parking complaints, or domestic property situations. They even handle calls regarding people obtaining permits for controlled burns.
The types of calls they field varies widely.
With that much volume and such a small staff, it adds up to needing to be able to process a lot of information quickly, calmly and accurately, and doing so takes more knowledge and training than people might realize, she said.
Often, their job means a lot of investigative work, as well, because they cannot see what is going on at the scene.
Particularly in situations where a crime may have been committed, a dispatcher has the tools to provide accurate information to law enforcement in real time in cases where what the officer is being told at the scene is not accurate.
They also need to ask a lot of questions calmly and efficiently, both so they know how best to assist the caller, and so they can give responders all the necessary information to know what type of situation they are walking into, especially in tense and potentially dangerous situations.
A dispatcher also has to be skilled at prioritizing situations. Because they may often encounter multiple calls at a time, they have to be able to decide quickly which situations require more immediate attention, and which they can follow up on, so having sound judgment and the ability to think quickly in fast-moving situations is crucial.
A dispatcher’s training
There is a great deal of training, as well as several certifications, required to be a dispatcher.
First, a dispatcher must be have a Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) certification, which the department pays for if the dispatcher is not already certified.
A dispatcher also must be certified to access the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database. This database includes information on such things as stolen property, criminal histories, outstanding warrants, offender registries, and missing persons. Because of the sensitive and secure nature of the information, access requires special training. Dispatchers and law enforcement are the only personnel allowed access.
Also, because they often have to give basic medical triage instructions over the phone, dispatchers are required to have an Emergency Medical Dispatch (EMD) certification which allows them to walk callers through basic beginning steps for a wide range of emergency medical issues such as allergic reactions, heart attacks, strokes, seizures and others.
One thing people may not realize, though, is that part of a dispatcher’s training includes spending time riding with law enforcement agencies and in-person time with fire departments. It allows a dispatcher to better understand what types of situations those responders will encounter, and how to direct them over the phone.
Because advances in technology have significantly impacted how dispatchers do their jobs, they must also be proficient in the use of several digital systems.
“We use technology every single day for every single thing we do,” Popp said.
Depending on the caller
What makes this job unique is how dependent dispatchers are on the person on the other end of the line to be able to render aid.
So, If you ever need to call 911, Popp said, it is crucial you give the dispatcher your address or location first.
“If we don’t know anything else, it’s very important to get that first question out there,” she said.
This is not only so they know where to dispatch responders, but who to dispatch. Because first responders, including police, fire and EMS departments have specific territories, or beats, they cover, making sure they know your location allows them to cut down response time by sending one who is closest to your location.
And although improved phone system technology allows them to determine locations far more precisely than in the past, an address is crucial to give responders your exact location.
Second, she said, even if you are in a situation where you are unable to speak, either due to a medical emergency or being in an otherwise compromised situation, it is crucial to keep the phone line open and connected as long as possible. The technology in their updated phone systems allows them to track a wireless phone’s location as long as line is open, which is especially crucial in a fluid situation.
Though she acknowledged it is difficult in crisis, Popp also stressed callers should answer the dispatcher’s questions as accurately as possible, because those questions are being asked for the both for the safety of the first responder coming to the scene and the caller on the other end of the line. It helps dispatchers provide the most accurate aid possible in emergency situations.
If, however, the situation is not an emergency, Popp said the best thing to do is call the administrative number, 620-793-1920, and the dispatcher will be able to route the call in the proper direction.
Character traits and emotions
Popp said the most important traits a dispatcher must possess are patience and strong multitasking abilities.
“At any second in your day, it can be non-stop with God knows how many tasks at hand at the same time, and you may or may not have somebody to help you do those, depending on how busy they are,” Popp said.
Excellent listening and interpersonal communication skills are also key.
“You’ve got to really listen to your callers. Make sure you hear and understand what they’re telling you,” Popp said.
This can be difficult, though, when dealing with callers who are themselves in crisis. So dispatchers also have to have a thick skin, because they are often the first person individuals talk to in an emergency.
“We we are oftentimes told it’s none of our business; we’re called every name in the book,” Popp said.
Even with the most calm and patient dispatcher, though, the emotional stress of the job can take its toll, because they encounter traumatizing situations she said most people do not think about, such as the cries of distressed parents, or at times, individuals taking their own lives.
It’s also difficult not often having closure once the call is done.
“We don’t know what happens once they’re on scene or what the outcome of that call is. So we may not know if our efforts really did help,” Popp said.
Despite the stresses, though, it’s the chance to help people in their time of greatest need which drives dispatchers.
“To bring that person who’s not breathing back to life or to (help) get that fire put out before there was a complete destruction of their property, it is very rewarding to know that you did what you can,” Popp said.