By Alaynah Pelton
National First Responders day has come and passed with few even realizing the holiday existed. For those without family or loved ones in the fast paced world of endless tribulation and tragedy, it can be easy to forget that some people’s daily lives revolve around some of the worst moments in ours.
This is especially true for 911 dispatches, who may not be the first on the scene, but are often the first direct line of help in a catastrophe.
These are the men and women who have one of the most important roles as communicators between victims and aid, and while few little boys and girls dream of growing up to be 911 dispatchers, for those who find themselves in the field as adults the job is about as fascinating as they come.
On any given day inside Clare County Central Dispatch you can generally find two people manning a headset, seven screens and two keyboards each. Each computer screen shows something different; the location of an incoming call, the endless tabs of standard procedure, connections to other first responders and much more.
It’s overwhelming to the untrained eye, a million words and images to look at all at once, a daunting and seemingly impossible chore.
But to those who sit in these chairs it’s not only business as usual, it can be the difference between life and death for those in the county.
Since COVID-19 the nature of calls have largely shifted from emergencies at bars or large events to the less recognized danger of seclusion at home. Today dispatchers have to be ready to handle situations that are not always cut and dry.
“I would say there’s been an increase in mental health calls with people staying inside more and less communication with the outside world.” Dispatch Director Marlana Terrian said, “I do think that takes a toll on people. I think the stress of everyday society with the increase in prices of everything, inflation has really taken its toll. I think people struggle to deal with that and they’re looking for resources and sometimes they don’t know where to look so we wind up helping or getting involved.”
Dispatch Director Terrian started work here at the young age of 19 years old. She was a student at Ferris State University with a degree in criminal justice and while she found herself starting a career in first response it was not in the way she anticipated.
“I got the job and I haven’t looked back,” Terrian said. “I know that law enforcement would not have been the right path but I like being in this field. I knew I wanted to be in the field, didn’t realize that this was a job that was an option.”
With a new normal after the pandemic people are once again going out, but many still reside inside. Mental health has always been a part of the job, but the inflation of mental health related crises is noticeable for people who have been in the business for decades like Director Terrian.
While there are standard resources for people dealing with mental health struggles, especially at the onset of seasonal depression in the winter, they’re not always available when dispatchers receive a call for help.
Oftentimes, when people call for help it’s late at night when business hours are over, this means 911 dispatchers are one of the main resources for getting people through until the morning.
“If they do have children they’re caring for their kids or getting kids off to school and things seem to set in after everything has settled and quiet and they have time to think at night,” Supervisor Melissa Schmidt said.
Schmidt states that seasonal depression is very real and should not be understated. Gloomy weather and its effects on mental health are a real problem people in the county face. Dispatchers have learned how best to help, even if resources aren’t readily available.
Sometimes what someone needs to get through the night until they can receive more direct help is someone to talk to and be there with them; this is just a fraction of what it means to be a dispatch operator.
Like Director Terrian, Schmitt started this job at a young age in 1999, when 911 was still largely run by deputies and quick thinking was to be relied on first instead of technology.
“It was literally here is a seat, here is a phone, people are going to yell at you; send them what they need,” Schmidt said.
At the time, creative solutions could be the difference between life and death such as instructing someone who was lost to start a fire inorder to be better located. The success of the job is still greatly dependent on who is sitting in the chair of course, no amount of technology or protocol can ever replace the human aspect of the job.
“When we are teaching people, I could train 15 different ways to take a domestic and the first time they pick up a 911 call and take a domestic it will not be anything they have trained [for],” Schmidt said. “So we really teach common sense, which is what you need mostly to do this job. And flexibility you have to be able to roll with the punches essentially.”
As this year is coming to a close and the strain of Michigan winter is starting to make itself known again the number of calls tend to die down, but the serious nature of the calls rise.
“We get one ice storm and we might pull 50 accidents in 2 hours if we get a good ice storm it just depends,” Schmidt said. “And some of them are slide offs and some of them are major, but they all still get called in and if it’s on the expressway it’s about 70 calls per accident.”
Winter accidents offer a new set of challenges for county residents and dispatchers alike. While the pace of the day changes, dispatch operators are still faced with the high and stressful demands of the job.
“Our calls kind of slow down but when we do get a call it’s a big call,” Terrian said. “Especially when you start getting into the bad weather or the crashes and things like that, we get a lot of calls all at once. You might have an hour or two with no major calls but then it’s – bam – all hands on deck.”
These demands mean there is no such thing as a boring day at the Clare County Dispatch. These people take great pride in their work to help others everyday, and with the holiday season of merriment and bad weather approaching they’re ready to do what they can to be there for Clare County.