By Leslie Ballard
“We are eternally grateful for all they do for us. We couldn’t do our jobs without them,” is Allegan Fire Chief Nick Brinks’ assessment of the Allegan County Centra Dispatchers (ACCD).
National Telecommunicators Week is April 10-16, “a time to celebrate and thank telecommunications personnel across the nation who serve our communities, citizens, and public safety personnel 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
While no formal celebration is planned for ACCD’s “first first responders,” they have much to be proud of in their work.
The 24 dispatch personnel work with 20 fire departments, 9 law enforcement agencies including the sheriff, tribal police, state police and city police departments), and 5 EMS providers. They also work with utility companies, Allegan County Road Commission, MDOT, medical helicopters, the US Coast Guard and many other agencies.
Allegan Police Chief Jay Gibson believes “ACCD does such an amazing job – always very thorough. We have a great working relationship with them and they are a very valuable part of the law enforcement team and public safety in general.”
“The interaction between all public safety entities and the camaraderie among those doing similar first responder jobs is unlike any other job I’ve had. Plus when you or your public safety partners save a life, that’s an overwhelmingly amazing feeling,” states Kayleigh Dornbush, who has been a dispatcher for 4 years after spending five years as a firefighter/EMT.
Whitney Wisner, Deputy Director of ACCD is extremely proud of the staff. “I have the privilege of working with the most capable, incredibly intelligent, wildly empathetic people. Our community is so blessed to have this group of 9-1-1 professionals doing what they do.”
Wisner is one of 52 people in this role in Michigan to have earned Emergency Number Professional certification whereby she has demonstrated a mastery of the comprehensive knowledge base required for emergency number program management.
In 2021, ACCD handled 113,138 calls to 9-1-1. The number has been trending upward as Allegan County continues to grow.
In January, dispatcher Jordan Reitzel helped a father deliver a baby. They didn’t have time to get to the hospital as the baby was delivered 2 minutes after calling 9-1-1. WoodTV featured Reitzel getting to meet the baby she helped bring into the world. “That was one of the great ones,” recalls Wisner.
Not all calls are. Some of the calls are heartbreaking as dispatchers listen to someone’s last words or dying breath or hear someone committing suicide.
Wisner has a catch in her voice as she recounts listening to an elderly man wailing as he stood outside the home he’d lived in all his life as he watched it burn down. She remembers the sound of that wail vividly. “You expect bad things but there are things that catch your heart by surprise.”
“I won’t sugar coat it – this job can be hard and stressful. We hear about situations that are hard to fathom and can be heavy on the heart, but knowing that I am providing them the help they need or the instruction to provide help until responders arrives, and being that reassuring voice to keep them going, makes it all worth it,” reveals telecommunicator Sara Jenkins, a 2 year ACCD veteran.
People calling 9-1-1 are often experiencing the worst day of their lives. ACCD understands this with the dispatcher mantra being “give us your worst and we’ll send you our best.”
Counseling is available through the county Employee Assistance Program (EAP), but Wisner said that the dispatchers tend to work through things with their peers who understand the job. “That is why they are such a strong team,” Wisner observes. It may also be why ACCD has one of the lowest turnover rates in Michigan.
Dornbush enjoys the variety in her work. “A typical day is expecting the unexpected. No two shifts are the same, which is my favorite part. The types of calls all vary within minutes of each other. You can get a structure fire taking half the county’s fire departments and resources, while still getting a running dog, fender bender or any type of medical. Everything is handled as if they are the only call happening.”
Colleague Julie Wanzer who joined the team over a year ago agrees. “Things get wild and there is never a dull moment, but we are here to help anyone and everyone. You never know what kind of day you’re going to have, and that’s what can make it really fun. You always give it your all, and it’s great knowing you have a team surrounding you that has your back.”
Occasionally, dispatchers may also have to spend time in court corroborating 9-1-1 taped evidence. ACCD dispatchers also average 6 hours of professional development a month, which exceeds the state requirement of 24 hours over 2 years.
The number of 9-1-1 calls may depend on the season, with weather sometimes playing a role. Allegan County draws lots of tourists in the summer. Not all calls, however, are emergencies.
Out of the 9-1-1 calls received in 2021, only 47, 621 were delivered to the Center on 9-1-1 lines. While ACCD has a non-emergency number 269-673-3899, some people still call 9-1-1 asking about when a power outage might end or the fireworks begin or what the phone number is for the animal shelter or the DNR.
They also get accidental calls when someone slips their phone into their pocket or it hits the right combination of buttons on the side of their cell phone while in the car cup holder. Children can also be culprits when they use an old phone a parent thought had been disabled. Wisner laughs as she recalls children calling to tattle on a sibling.
In cases of accidental calls, she asks that the caller not hang up as dispatchers have to follow through on abandoned calls until they reach the caller and make sure there is no emergency.
People can now also text to 9-1-1, and if callers don’t answer, the dispatchers will text until they know the caller is safe.
The dispatch room might remind visitors of the NASA Houston control room with the intense focus of dispatchers working with callers at stations around the room. Supervisors work alongside dispatchers and everyone jumps in whenever needed. While responding to calls, dispatchers are always monitoring a minimum of eight different law enforcement, fire and medical talk groups. While one dispatcher is working with the caller, another will help run warrants or gun licenses so that the responding officer has the most accurate view of the situation and has the backup needed. “Officer safety is a big concern for us,” states Wisner.
The dispatchers have 33 medical protocols at their fingertips which are scripts they follow to assist callers in a variety of situations, from falls or broken limbs to cardiac arrest and everything in between.
The questions they ask might not make sense to the callers, but as Wanzer says, “the questions we ask really do matter.” Dornbush continues, “we use that information so we can notify our responders of what they are enroute to, and to notify them of any safety concerns prior to their arrival. For those wondering why we ask the questions we do, it’s to keep all our responders safe.”
Brinks, talking about the top-notch service ACCD provides, notes how the dispatchers prioritize and keep all the emergency services operating collaboratively.
“I like to tell people that 9-1-1 is the ultimate customer service position. Telecommunicators are required to have the ability to make quick-thinking decisions (with the ability to explain why to a number of Public Safety Partners), complete several tasks in very rapid succession, all while remaining composed and empathetic,” says Wisner.
Technological advances in the last five years have also helped their work. Wisner recalls being able to find a man who had become lost and disoriented while riding a snowmobile in the State Game Area different through GPS software now available.
Aside from their colleagues in the emergency services, ACCD does not receive much recognition. “We have gotten the occasional card from a caller, but generally we work in the shadows. People don’t realize that we are responsible for triggering all the responders they see,” said Wisner.
No elaborate in-house celebration is planned because ACCD is 100% surcharge funded, which restricts how monies are spent. Along with operational and capital expenses, monies collected through the 9-1-1 Surcharge are being used to pay off the debt for the new radio system. ACCD replaced its old public safety radio system that had reached end-of-life and became part of the Michigan Public Safely Communications System in 2017.