Life as a Summit County 911 dispatcher
Flashing monitor screens, reference binders dense with information and wall maps fill the Summit County Communication Center’s office. The team of dispatchers, ranging from one to three people at a time, chat with each other until an emergency call interrupts their conversation.
“I love it — every day is different,” said SCCC dispatcher Sarah Mumford. “You never know what’s going to happen.”
The only consistent factor is the way each call begins: “911, what is the location of your emergency?”
Among the multiple monitors at each workstation, dispatchers answer and prioritize calls from citizens, police, firefighters and others. They use coordinates to track down callers and help direct first responders to emergencies, and are responsible for following up with police in dangerous situations.
For example, something as simple as a traffic stop can be quite dangerous for the officers involved. Dispatcher Inger McDonald said that they are required to follow up with police five minutes into an incident, as moving traffic and aggravated drivers can pose dangers to officers.
For medical calls, dispatchers have a list of questions to follow so they can diagnose the problem and send that information to emergency responders. With the plethora of areas county dispatchers cover, six to nine months of extensive training are required before they are ready to respond to all situations.
“Frequently, we get tourists who might not be familiar with the area, creating longer response times. That’s one of the struggles we work with here,” said dispatcher Kyle Ottinger.
For those situations, geography training is key, especially since Summit County dispatchers work not only with firefighters and police, but also with ski patrol and search and rescue. As with workers all over the county, the dispatchers’ jobs change as seasonal guests stream in and out of the mountains.
“We’re seasonal just like the rest of the community. So you can predict how busy we’re gonna be by how busy the resorts are,” Ottinger said. “On the weekends, you get a lot of people coming in from Denver, so our population increases a lot in Summit County. And that’s when you tend to see most of our calls.”
What’s your emergency?
For most cases, just one dispatcher is required to respond to calls and send out police or paramedics. However in other cases, particularly traffic incidents, a full staff may be required to deal with the volume of calls.
Ann Marmon, another dispatcher with SCCC, said the center was inundated with callers during a 30-car pileup on Interstate 70 last year.
“With I-70 accidents, there are numerous reporting parties who want to help. It’s just overwhelming with so many people calling,” said Julie Lawless, Office Coordinator for the SCCC. “We usually work as a team to get the best reporting party. People who pulled over on the road, not just people who drove by.”
Not all calls to the dispatch center are run-of-the-mill traffic incidents. While many calls are serious, occasionally dispatchers receive calls that range from the humorous to the downright bizarre.
Marmon remembers when one family called the center requesting a dog to help sniff out a missing pet iguana. She remembers another case in which an alarmed man reported that a monkey was on his balcony, and animal control found a raccoon.
Marijuana also makes an appearance on phone lines, as people raise medical or legal concerns.
“I think it’s pretty safe to say we’ve gotten an influx of edible (pot) calls since it’s been legalized,” Ottinger said. “People don’t realize when they eat a small amount of edible that it might take a while for it to set in, so they end up eating more. We’re seeing a lot of medical-related calls from that, with people who feel their heart race, seeing a little more of the effects than they intended.”
He added that the center also receives several calls from observers who see people using marijuana, and wonder if it is legal in a specific context.
the day of a dispatcher
Every dispatcher works between 10 and 12 hours, four days a week. Most choose to stand during the day to deter fatigue, with treadmills, weights and yoga mats to keep people moving.
“We’re tied to this room. We can’t just leave every hour and say, ‘Be back in 10!’” Marmon said.
On top of the stress of being stuck in one room, dispatchers sometimes have to deal with night shifts, the pressure of multiple calls and the emotional weight of taking difficult calls from time to time. To help deal with such stresses, the dispatch team members often rely on one another to sort through what’s on their minds.
“We’re a pretty close group,” Ottinger said. “We can talk to each other about things that are bothering us and have that support.”
Since every call that comes into the center is confidential, support from coworkers is key.
“To be a good dispatcher, and to be good to your own self, your personal life and your family, you have to be able to at least, at some point, walk away from the end of your shift,” Marmon said.
Since dispatchers are the first responders through the phone, they don’t always get to hear the story of each call. Stories of recovery don’t always reach them unless they are specifically reported to them. Still, they take pride in helping others in the county.
“Everybody here tries to keep a really positive outlook on things,” Ottinger said. “We know we’re here to help people, and that’s fulfillment in itself.”
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