Dedicated 911 dispatchers are the 'nuts and bolts' of the department
HARTINGTON — A loud buzz tone alerts the Cedar County dispatch center that a 911 call is coming in.
“You’re put on alert right away,” said Dispatcher Paul Meier. “You don’t know what’s on the other side. Is it a car accident? Is it a child choking? Is it a house fire?”
Dispatchers are seldom seen but their voice and presence on the other end of the line can be a life-saving connection between the public and police, fire and emergency medical services.
Working non-traditional hours including nights, weekends and holidays, dispatchers deal with callers who are often panicked, upset or even under the influence - working diligently with those callers to obtain the necessary information to get help on the way.
It’s an often thankless job where dispatchers are left with the mental stress of wondering if they could’ve done anything more or differently to affect a call’s outcome.
Dispatchers across the country are being recognized as part of National Public Safety Telecommunications Week. Sheriff Larry Koranda said Cedar County’s team of four dispatchers and one coordinator are overdue in the recognition and calls their efforts praiseworthy.
“They’re the nuts and bolts of the sheriff’s office and 911 center,” Koranda said. “They’re the ones taking the initial call from the public in a highly stressful situation. They’re the ones that keep this operation running.”
The Cedar County dispatch team is led by Emergency Manager Kevin Garvin and is made up of four dispatchers working 12-hour shifts: Jan Jansen, Mikayla VanDeBerg, Lori Mischke and Paul Meier. Collectively, they net 70 years of combined service.
Even though Meier has only been working at the Cedar County dispatch center for a year, he’s been in public safety since he was 16, working as an EMT first responder as well as in corrections.
“Twenty-seven years as a first responder, going to the calls, and now I’m the voice that tells you to go to the calls. It’s a whole different perspective,” Meier said.
But the job takes all kinds.
Mischke worked at a cheese warehouse before first becoming a dispatcher in Dixon County, moving over to Cedar County dispatch five years ago.
“I wish I would’ve found this years ago,” she said. All emergency and nonemergency calls are routed through the dispatch center. Each day is different as to the content and volume of calls on the three lines that feed into the center.
“Like last night, from midnight to 0700 this morning, there’re 10 entries,” Koranda said. “Last week (on a particular day) by 7:00 we had 70 some entries.”
During a weather emergency such as a tornado, it’s not uncommon to receive 100 911 calls about the same incident while it's occurring.
While getting the appropriate agency on its way to the emergency, dispatchers’ main goal is to get as much information as possible from the caller. Callers - who are in high stress, emergency situations - often get frustrated and hang up on dispatchers during this information-gathering process.
“It’s my responsibility to make sure my officers are safe,” Meier said. “I have to be able to paint the picture for them as to what they’re getting into.”
Some of the 911 calls that come in are from children playing with the phone or from phones no longer in service. Some 911 calls are just made by mistake if a cell phone emergency call button is accidentally bumped.
But they all are checked out as if they are the real deal.
When not on the phone, dispatchers monitor multiple security cameras, assist and keep track of officers, keep an eye on the weather and tend to inmate needs including laundry and meals, among many other duties.
Koranda said he’s looking to hire one more dispatcher to his team, looking for people who are detail-oriented to fill the role.
Whoever is hired will become part of a team that operates more like a family.
“I’ve got to look out for these guys,” Meier said. “They rely on me to do that. There’s a trust there. They’re my responsibility. Their family is depending on us so that they come home to see them at night.”
Oftentimes dispatchers and law enforcement will lean on each other after a devastating incident, Mischke said.
Meier still has some calls that never quite leave his memory including two drownings and a four-wheeler fatality.
He remembers the date, year and time when there was a motor vehicle crash in front of the Kansas corrections facility in which he was working, tragically killing an officer.
“I still live with that,” he said - even though more than a year has passed. “Different calls that come up will trigger a memory. Some calls are locked in a closet somewhere upstairs but they come out sometimes.”
For Mischke, several motor vehicle crash fatalities haunt her as well.
Everybody deals with the tragedy of the job in a different way.
Koranda said after a distressing event, a Critical Incident Stress Management debriefing will be scheduled where everyone involved in the call - from dispatchers to first responders and law enforcement - can come in and talk through the call with trained mental health professionals.
“That is a beneficial entity,” Koranda said. “You see it a lot in young deaths, unexpected deaths, teenage suicide, someone well known in the community who’s killed. It’s all voluntary but they provide a place so everyone can just talk about it in a private conversation with just the group there.”
Those calls that turn out favorably are celebrated as wins and help dull the memories of the calls that did not turn out as well, Meier said.
Meier and Mischke said while being a dispatcher can be difficult it’s also rewarding to help people.
“We see the worst people on their best day. And we see some of the best people on their worst day,” Meier said. “You just deal with it.”