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Saviors of the Switchboard

Erin Crowell - August 29th, 2011
Saviors of the Switchboard
By Erin Crowell
It’s a cool, sunny Monday afternoon in August. The work gears are primed again as folks settle back into the 9-to-5 pace, taking a half hour for lunch, running errands and finishing projects left on-hold for the weekend.
Above the hustle, overlooking the Boardman River in a room bathed in darkness, the gears have never stopped for a group of people known as Central Dispatch, the consolidated emergency services answering point responsible for handling requests for law enforcement, fire and EMS agencies for the entire Grand Traverse County.
Whether it’s a fire, car accident or an emergency at home, every call to 9-1-1 in the county is directed to this room on the third level of the Governmental Center – an average of 125,000 total calls each year.

Today, Central Dispatch is fairly quiet as Andrea McPeake, Vance Stringham and Joe Miller dispatch calls to area police, fire and EMS. Susan Guernsey of Buckley is the 9-1-1 call taker, first assessing the emergency then fielding it to the designated responders (police, fire or EMS) as each handled by her three coworkers.
Throughout their 10-hour shift, the dispatchers and call taker will rotate positions but never leave their physical spot – a desk with three 32” computer monitors, situated side-by-side in an encompassing arc.
It has the look of a NASA control room, excluding the wall of TV monitors several stories high. Rather, there is one large flat screen TV always tuned to the Weather Channel in anticipation for inclement weather that could send the phone lines screaming. Energy drinks, Pepsi bottles and tinfoiled leftovers are common items at the workstations when a full work day could mean zero breaks.
Two years ago, Central Dispatch was located in the middle of the Governmental Center. There were no windows and employees had to use the public restroom which, “by the time you were able to get away from the phones, the bathroom could be in use,” says Jamel Anderson, director of Central Dispatch. “We were also using desks that I had bought on eBay for a dollar each.”
Now in their current space, dispatchers have a bird’s eye view of the Boardman River, a break room surrounded by windows, their own restroom and a work area that keeps them as comfortable as possible while on their shift.
“These aren’t special request items. You will find these at just about every dispatch center,” Anderson notes about the adjustable workstations that allow dispatchers to sit or stand—as well as adjust their computer monitor eye-level—at the push of a button.
An elliptical, Bowflex and stationary bike sit in the back room, a makeshift gym to help employees stay alert, focused and healthy.

During the busiest times, Guernsey said she could handle up to several calls at one time, assessing each call’s emergency before answering the next. It’s a job that requires multi-tasking to the extreme.
“You have to be kind of crazy to work here,” says Anderson. “It’s hard to determine who will make a good fit for the job. At least 50% of the people we hire do not make it through training.”
Communication, typing, flexibility and a tough skin are all skills that contribute to the making of an efficient employee – along with an ability to track what’s happening on the computer.
“This is the calls pending screen,” Guernsey gestures toward her left computer monitor that shows three boxes, “and calls waiting to be dispatched and calls that have been dispatched – which will have the call number, the dispatch time, the incident number, the primary unit on scene, the call type and all the information.
“This one on the right here,” she points to a lower box, “is the status control panel which tells you what’s going on with the call. If it’s just been dispatched, it will be this yellow color. If it’s this golden rod-ish color, it means they’re en route. When they arrive on scene, then it changes to dark blue. This ambulance has left the scene and is en route to the hospital. Once they get to the hospital, it will be a light blue color.”
The right screen is an aerial map of Grand Traverse County, taken by satellite this spring – with small orange dots indicating every listed home and business address.
Every police vehicle on the road is accounted for, as well.
“It won’t show ambulances because they don’t have the tracking chip; but the police guys, they do have it. We can zoom to see where they are. That’s real-time for car 931, he’s all the way down here,” she says, pointing to a cartoon icon of a police car moving slowly down a county road. “We can see where he’s going and how fast he’s going. Some of them like to unplug it. Naughty, naughty,” she mimics, laughing. “It’s not a good thing to do that, because if they’re just on lunch and stumble into trouble, well, we can’t find them.”
Guernsey zooms the map into the East Bay area.
“Let’s say you get an in-progress call where you need a responder immediately. You put the call in on the radio and say such-and-such business in Central neighborhood has a possible B&E in progress and you give them the location, so they know that car 936—who is all the way down here in Holiday Hills—isn’t close and likely wouldn’t be needed immediately; but car 968, which is our sector car in Acme, is close and could go and hold down the fort until…”
Her phone line rings.
“Grand Traverse 911. Hello? Hello? Carol?” Guernsey patiently tries to establish communication with the caller while pulling up a box of information on her computer screen.
“This is F12, a beautiful feature. You double click, pull up your call and it gives you the address, telephone number and the name the phone is registered to. So I hit redial and call Carol back.”
In the information box, Guernsey records there were no signs of distress over the phone—which could mean anything from screaming to heavy breathing—and confirms a follow-up call, which results in a busy signal.
“She probably just dialed us by accident, hung up, then continued to dial the party she was trying to reach,” Guernsey explains coolly.

Do misdials happen often?
“Oh, God. We get a ridiculous amount of hang-up calls,” she laughs, attributing such coincidental mistakes as calling from a hotel. “You have to dial nine to get out then one for long distance… hit a wrong button and ‘bling!’”
“Several years ago, I got a call from this guy who said, ‘Hey Joe, what temperature do you cook fish?’” said Miller. “At first, I thought he knew me because that’s my name, but then I realized he just dialed the wrong number.”
This can easily happen 20 times a day, all of which require a follow-up call – and sometimes a police or fire unit sent to the address, which means cost to taxpayers.
“It happens all the time, but mistakes happen,” said Anderson. “If someone has accidently dialed 9-1-1, they shouldn’t hang up. Instead, we ask them to stay on the line and let the operator know it was a mistake.”
Other people simply misunderstand the purpose of 9-1-1, calling for general information, directory assistance, paying traffic tickets, pet health questions and just out of plain boredom, according to the National Emergency Number Association.
“I’ve helped people set their watches,” laughs Stringham.
A woman in Volusia County, Florida was jailed last year after calling 9-1-1 four times because of a bad manicure.
“Cynthia Colston told My Fox Orlando that she called after the nail technician became aggressive with her when she refused to pay as much as the store was charging for nails that she said were too short,” reported 9-1-1 Magazine. The woman called again, saying the dispatched deputy was unhelpful and she “just wanted to see what could be done to help her situation.”
Every U.S. state is different in punishing 9-1-1 abuse callers. In Michigan, a person can spend up to 93 days in jail and pay a $500 fine, or both, if considered a misdemeanor.

Aside from the level of stress handling several calls at once, dispatchers are also prone to psychological damage due to the nature of emergency calls.
“Emergency telecommunicators experience trauma as they assist the public during their most tragic moments. This traumatization can produce fallout in the telecommunicator’s personal life including increased risk of depression, anxiety, addiction, and personal relationship problems,” according to Jim Marshall, a certified EMDR therapist.
Anderson encourages her dispatchers to seek counseling after handling difficult situations. Sharing such moments with coworkers has helped many dispatchers talk through their emotions and deal with these types of situations.
With over 20 years experience on the phones, Anderson said she has dealt with plenty of disturbing calls.
“You deal with things that are just absolutely heartbreaking and devastating. Sometimes people will yell, call you names, say they just found their baby dead.”
Calls regarding Sudden Infant Death Syndrome struck a personal chord for Anderson, particularly after the birth of her daughter.

Some dispatchers have received calls regarding seriously injured family members, have had to guide callers through CPR and try to convince a suicidal person from taking his or her life.
“Several years ago, Jason Torrey—our deputy director—received a phone call from a man who simply said, ‘bring two body bags to this address’ and hung up the phone…it turns out he had been caring for his very ill sister and didn’t want to see her suffer anymore, so he shot her and then shot himself,” said Anderson. “I’m sure Jason remembers that call to this day.”
Despite the helplessness that dispatchers sometimes feel, there are moments of immediate help.
“Just this spring I was taking a suicide-help class and had to work a 12-hour shift, so as soon as I was done with the class, I came here and the first call I got was a guy standing on a chair with a noose around his neck…and I talked him down.”
Guernsey attributes her ability to make a personal connection with the caller as the reason she was able to end the 20-minute conversation successfully.
“Before I worked here, I had my EMT license and the gentleman on the chair I had picked up from a car accident, so I knew part of his history,” she explains. “I was able to connect with him using that tie saying, ‘you know, your life has changed so much since the accident, why would you want to do this now?’ You can get personal if you feel it’s appropriate and at that time I thought it was the right thing to do to get through to him.”
On the Central Dispatch wall is a framed poster titled, “9-1-1 Always There, Always Ready,” with a list of what a dispatcher does in a typical day, such as: “I was a friend to a total stranger… Gave someone the rest of their life… Helped find a lost child… Stopped a crime… Calmed a frantic victim…Saved lives… Made a difference.”
Guernsey remembers the day her daughter saw that poster.
“She read that one day and just looked at me, amazed, and said, ‘Mom, you do all those things?’ and I said, ‘Yup.’”
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