As one 911 dispatcher sent officers to track down a reported mushroom hunter, another rushed paramedics to a reported medical death. Meanwhile, a third emergency dispatcher was on the phone with a caller who was complaining about someone driving across their property.
The calls were coming in and being dispatched out simultaneously Wednesday from the Douglas County Emergency Communications Center, located in a secure area of the Law Enforcement & Judicial Center, 111 E. 11th St. Whether traumatic or unusual, emergency dispatchers said they never know what to expect from people calling 911.
"It's interesting, there's never a dull moment," said Heather Lemon, a midnight shift dispatcher for the center.
Surrounded by five flat screen computer monitors, a keyboard, two computer mouses, two foot pedals, mechanical desks that move up and down, and a headset attached to their head, each dispatcher in the Douglas County Emergency Communications Center is equipped with multiple tools instrumental in dispatching emergency responders to whatever calls come in.
Dispatchers responded to 181 calls in a 10 1/2 hour period Wednesday morning. At one point, multiple 911 lines lit up as several people called to report a car crash.
The three dispatchers on duty were immediately overwhelmed, prompting shift supervisor Marjorie Hedden to step in and help answer the phones. The line she picked up wasn't about the accident, but someone reporting they'd be conducting a controlled burn.
Then with the click of a foot pedal to activate her radio, Lemon dispatched officers out to the report of a knife-wielding man.
"It is a high-stress job," said Lori Alexander, a dispatcher of more than 11 years.
The dispatchers recently received proclamations from the Lawrence City Commission and Douglas County Commission, in recognition for their service, as part of Public Safety Telecommunications Week.
Thirteen dispatchers work in split shifts around the clock to answer about 240,000 emergency 911 and other telephone calls and dispatch responders to about 200,000 calls every year. They coordinate responses and take calls for Lawrence, Eudora and Baldwin City police; Douglas County sheriff's deputies; Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical; and multiple township fire departments throughout the county.
Dispatchers are the link between people needing help and receiving help, and they boast a track record of answering 911 calls in an average of 3.4 seconds. It's a job that often goes unnoticed and has its ups and downs, dispatchers said.
"It's a hard job," said Hedden. "You have people yelling at you on the phone, you have the officers yelling at you on the street. … You can't mess up."
Hedden said the communications center is at its lowest staffing level since 1997, mostly due to burnout among dispatchers. She said the constant stress can be overwhelming for some and even cause them to make career-destroying mistakes.
But those dispatchers who’ve learned to overcome the pressure, clearly take pride in keeping the community and responders out of danger and getting them the help they need.