Celebrate 911 dispatchers week: They're here to help those in distress
"911: What is your emergency?"
When an emergency dispatcher answers a 911 call, they never know how urgent the call will be: Will the person on the other end of the phone line be in danger of an assault? Will the caller be seriously injured from crashing their vehicle? Or will it be less dangerous, such as a neighbor throwing snow or garbage in the caller's yard?
Each time the 911 dispatcher picks up a call, they need to be prepared for anything. They need to know what to say and how to help each caller.
"Our communications employees are critical in the role of emergency services," Crow Wing County Sheriff Scott Goddard said in an email. "They are the link between those calling for help and the personnel who respond. We are proud to recognize our dedicated staff and extend a heartfelt that you for their commitment to our community."
This week—April 14-20—is National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, a time to celebrate and thank those who dedicate their lives to serving the public as 911 dispatchers. Fifteen 911 dispatchers are typical at the Crow Wing County Sheriff's Office, which includes three supervisors working a 12-hour shift. There are always two dispatchers per shift—day and night—and a third working a shift from 3 p.m. to 3 a.m.
Scott Heide is one of three "Public Safety Answering Point" supervisors at the Sheriff's Office 911 Communications Center, which was recently remodeled inside the sheriff's office, also known as the law enforcement center, off Laurel Street in Brainerd.
"I've been a dispatcher for almost 24 years," Heide said. "I really love my job. You never know what they're going to say when you pick up the phone. Just like the officers, their calls are different everyday. It's a calling, I don't know (why I am in this position). Nobody as a kid wanted to grow up to be a dispatcher, but here we all are. It's hard to describe what attracts us to sit here."
Heide said currently there are 12 dispatchers, and they are in the process of filling the three vacant positions. Heide said one of the greatest skills a dispatcher should possess is being able to multitask.
"They always talk about multitasking, but a lot of jobs have multitasking," Heide said. "I may be a little bit biased, but this job is the granddaddy of multitasking. Right now there are no calls, but (the dispatch center) can be an hour of boredom followed by an hour of chaos. We all got to work together to make sure things get done."
Heide said an example of the multitasking that takes place as a dispatcher is they all need to know what the other person is doing at all times, not just what they are doing. When one dispatcher is on a 911 call and is assigning the radio talk groups to the appropriate agencies—such as law enforcement officers, the fire department or an ambulance service—the other dispatchers need to know what is going on. Heide said they need to be aware of all the calls, in case one of them needs help.
Last year, Crow Wing County 911 dispatchers picked up 30,450 emergency calls. Heide said dispatchers answered many more 911 calls, however, the calls were not all emergencies. 911 is to be used only in emergency situations. An emergency is any situation requiring immediate assistance from law enforcement, the fire department or an ambulance. If a person is ever in doubt of whether a situation is an emergency they should call 911, to be safe, the sheriff's office states.
Heide said a common 911 non-emergency call the dispatch center receives is on the Fourth of July, asking when the fireworks will begin.
"It's one of those things where we have a lot of tourists who come here and they don't know our number," Heide said of the sheriff's office non-emergency number 218-829-4749. "They could look it up (but they don't, so they call 911). So we kind of lost 911 as an emergency only type call. So people are calling in everything now."
Having compassion for people is a skill a dispatcher should possess.
"Some people will call with some really awful problems in their life and something I may have never experienced," Heide said. "They are the ones calling in and we're trying to deal with this stuff on a daily basis. Having compassion for your fellow person is a good quality."
Heide said the toughest calls—which most dispatchers will agree on—are the ones dealing with children, such as when a child goes missing. He said most of the dispatchers have children so when there is a caller in distress about an emergency dealing with a child—it's hard for them to not think about their own children and to feel for the families.
The new dispatch center is more open and spacious with windows and an outdoor patio—which is nice for dispatchers to go outside to get fresh air if they need to decompress after a tough call, Heide said.
Heide and Shari Cline-Turcotte, another 911 dispatcher with the county, knew each other before they worked together as dispatchers. They both worked previously at North Memorial Ambulance. Cline-Turcotte has worked as a 911 dispatcher just over 20 years.
"I went to college to be a police officer and I decided I would try this and see what it's all about," Cline-Turcotte said, as she wanted to get her foot in the door to become an officer. "I realized I liked (being a dispatcher) and I've been here ever since. I like it because it's never the same, it's not boring and I can do it."
Cline-Turcotte agreed with Heide that the most challenging calls involve children or people who are upset trying to find a loved one. Cline-Turcotte has worked all the shifts, day and night, and currently is on the day shift.
"It's busier during the day with smaller calls—such as civil type things," she said. "During the day people are awake and at night the calls are more urgent and after 3 a.m. it gets pretty quiet.
"I would recommend this job because it's a variety. It's not boring. You never know what will happen."
Cline-Turcotte said the easiest part of the job is her coworkers. She said many of her coworkers have Type A personalities, which she has also.
"We spend 12 hours together," she said. "I spend more time with these guys than my own family."
Another coworker, Estevan Cortinas, has been a dispatcher for about four years.
"I am the least experienced person in this group," he said. "I've worked a combination of all the shifts—days, nights, it varies. They put me where they need me. I prefer days because I have a family. But other than that, it depends. During the days you get a lot more volume of calls, but during the nights you get a different variety of calls."
Cortinas said he sort of fell into the position as a dispatcher. He saw the job posting and thought he'd throw his name into the arena.
"I didn't think I would get it because I actually worked in fast food before I came here," Cortinas said. "They took a chance on me and it worked out really nice. It's one of those situations where it doesn't matter what background you are from, as long as you are capable of multitasking and doing stuff like that then you might work for this position."
Cortinas said his job is satisfying because he's able to help people. He talked about a recent call of a missing 4-year-old girl near Crow Wing County Highway 18 and could hear how scared the caller, the mother, was. The child was missing for about an hour and then found.
"To see this outcome really makes this job everything," he said.
Cortinas said when he first started, he took a challenging call.
"It was a call on someone drowning," he said. "It was very intense and one where quick second decision-making thoughts were needed and if you mess up you potentially could risk someone's life. That was the hardest thing. I didn't know what to say, but you learn from experience you get into this position and learn to be a better dispatcher."
When not to call 911
• General information.
• When the power is out.
• Legal advice.
• To see if the number really works.
• To get a ride for a doctor's appointment.
• For road/travel information.
• For a pet.
• As a prank.