Calls of duty: Inside the new and improved Summit County 911 Center
Friday was a relatively quiet day at the office for Todd Camper and Kandace Cornelsen, two of the county’s emergency dispatchers operating out of the Summit County 911 Center in Frisco.
On days like this — when mud season has stripped the county of its tourists, and residents enjoy a brief respite before the crowds and traffic return in late May — the job seems easy, laid-back even. The two stood back-to-back at their desks manning impressive seven-monitor computer rigs, intermittently checking in with police officers on routine traffic stops or answering the occasional phone call from the public. All was calm.
But the easygoing atmosphere exhibited during this time of the year is the exception, not the rule. Emergency call volumes swell at the height of tourist seasons in the winter and summer, and on days with major public safety concerns like wildfires, the center can turn to controlled chaos.
“It’s a rush,” said Camper, an 18-year veteran of the center. “The busier shifts are the more fun shifts. On a day like today we have to stand in here and entertain each other. But on others, stuff is coming in one second before the next. You have to have the skills to keep up with it. It’s intense. It’s stressful. But it’s great.
“I can do it, Kandace can do it and our co-workers can do it. But there are a lot of people that wash out of our training program. Not everybody is cut out for this job. Those of us who are, we’re lucky because we have the chance to make such a positive impact on the community.”
Camper and Cornelsen are two of just a handful of dispatchers currently working at the 911 center, a job that involves everything from fielding emergency calls from the public, dispatching the proper authorities, coordinating incident channels, running background checks and more. Reinforcements are on the way, with four others making their way through training. But even after their graduation, the center will be short-staffed.
Summit 911 Center director Jerry Del Valle said a fully-staffed center would include 17 dispatchers along with three supervisors, but that there’s currently only 15 employees including the four in training. Del Valle said understaffing is a national problem for 911 centers, but finding good dispatchers is also difficult given the strenuous training process, especially in Summit.
While some dispatchers in bigger cities may only be trained to handle either law or emergency services calls, Summit’s dispatchers are trained in both — a rigorous eight-month process that walks trainees through call-handling and dispatching, memorizing standard operating procedures, and more area-specific training like learning how to assist a caller perform CPR over the phone.
“It’s a test of your ego,” said Cornelsen, who helps to train new dispatchers. “It’s a test of your endurance and your memory … it’s interesting to train someone in that capacity. And it’s a very long training program, usually about eight months, which can be very challenging for people. Most police officers aren’t even trained for that long.”
Del Valle said that the center handles more than 100 calls on any given day, and considerably more during major public safety incidents. He said that during the Buffalo Mountain Fire last year, the center received over 500 calls in about six hours.
Dispatchers say that along with being exhausting, the job can also be emotionally draining, as they often have to report fatalities to the county coroner, talk to suicidal individuals, and generally interact with people in crisis.
“The emotional impact isn’t always apparent at first,” said Cornelsen. “We take so many calls a day, and you’re on to the next thing so quickly that it doesn’t set in. Weeks later you might think, ‘that was a really tough call, I wonder how that person is doing?’ It can be really hard once that sets in. It might not be in that moment, but it often presents itself somehow.”
While not for the faint of heart, the dispatchers said they love the job, although they do have some pet peeves with the community — namely accidental 911 calls and hesitation during real emergencies.
“One day I had 35 butt dials in one day,” said Camper. “If we’re on an emergency call and another phone rings, we have to put the first call on hold. If it’s a butt dial, we have to hang up, call it back and make sure they don’t have an emergency before we go back to the known emergency. They’re interrupting real emergencies because they’re being careless with their devices.”
“On the other side of the coin, don’t hesitate to call us in an emergency,” said Cornelsen. “I can’t tell you how many people call in saying this happened last night, or two days ago or four hours ago. If you’re in an emergency, or not sure if you’re in an emergency, don’t hesitate to call 911 and report it.”
The job is difficult, but those who work at the 911 center also say that it provides them with a unique viewpoint within the county, a constant look behind the curtain of what’s considered by many to be a paradise.
“People don’t see the bad side of things, and they think nothing bad happens here,” said Del Valle. “But for us, seeing those things that happen in Summit County, it’s enlightening. It grounds you a little bit. It makes you think a lot more about where you live and appreciate what you have. It’s not all beautiful mountains and forests. It makes you thankful for the things you have.”
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