Archive for Saturday, June 11, 2011

Douglas County emergency dispatchers juggle hundreds of calls every day

June 11, 2011


Patty Lichlyter is one of 19 full-time dispatchers at the Douglas County Emergency Communications Center, 111 E. 11th. Dispatchers are responsible for taking and responding to an average of 900 to 1,100 emergency calls each day for emergencies big and small, from fires and vehicle accidents to barking dogs.

Patty Lichlyter is one of 19 full-time dispatchers at the Douglas County Emergency Communications Center, 111 E. 11th. Dispatchers are responsible for taking and responding to an average of 900 to 1,100 emergency calls each day for emergencies big and small, from fires and vehicle accidents to barking dogs.

On the street

Have you ever called 911?

On accident.

More responses

If you’ve called 911 anytime in the past 13 years, there’s a good chance you’ve spoken with Marjorie Hedden.

She’s often one of the people on the receiving end.

She’s one of 19 full-time dispatchers working in the Douglas County Emergency Communications Center in downtown Lawrence. The job, which she said is not for the faint of heart, requires a great deal of focus and concentration, not to mention the ability to multitask.

On any given day, dispatchers may have to answer calls using their hands, headsets or feet. Depending on the volume of calls, the chatter among the at least three dispatchers can become distracting.

“It can get loud in here,” Hedden said. “You have to learn to tune it out without tuning everything out.”

Focus is merely one of the many skills in which Douglas County dispatchers must be proficient. They are also required to commit to memory a wealth of knowledge, including 10-codes, computer shorthand and emergency vehicle numbers and functions.

“That’s why the training period is so long,” Hedden said.

To become an emergency dispatcher in Douglas County takes time. Each dispatcher is cross-trained to handle every position on the staff. Scott Ruf, the center’s new director, said the training process can take as long as eight months.

“There’s a big, big learning curve,” he said. “It’s one of those jobs where very rarely do you have someone come in that has experience.”

But the training has to be demanding and comprehensive because the job needs it to be. Dispatchers are responsible for taking and responding to calls for a plethora of emergencies, from fires and vehicle accidents to violent crimes and barking dogs. The center receives an average of 900 to 1,100 service calls each day, or roughly 300 to 350 calls per eight-hour shift. Ruf said patience among dispatchers is a necessary and usually acquired skill.

“What people sometimes don’t understand is that we might be asking these questions, but people are already on the way,” Ruf said of emergency calls. “There’s that customer service and that empathy, but at the same time we’re trying to do a job. There’s a method to the madness.”

The madness includes manning the communications center 24 hours each day, every day of the week. In Douglas County, that happens in three shifts, with one covering the morning and early afternoon, one for the evening and one for the overnight hours. Even with 19 dispatchers and three shift supervisors, Ruf said, the staff may not be big enough at times.

“We’re probably understaffed,” Ruf said. “To what degree or by how many I don’t know, but a lot of that comes to how you set your schedules up.”

But county dispatchers aren’t alone in their work. On days and nights when things get hectic, public safety employees with Kansas University lend a helping hand. The symbiotic relationship lets county, city and university law enforcement work more effectively.

Technology helps the center operate smoothly, too. A recent upgrade to the call system has provided dispatchers with a new touch-screen setup that makes handling calls easier and faster. Each dispatcher has a station with as many as five monitors, all set to help complete or keep track of important information. There’s even a computer that lets dispatchers know which hospitals have beds available in the area.

Ruf said he considers the communications center a support service. The center provides dispatch support to 23 area agencies in Douglas County, including agencies in Lawrence, Eudora, Lecompton and Baldwin City. With the help of personnel and sufficient funding, Ruf said his goal for the center was clear.

“I want it to be one of the best, top-notch professional agencies of its type in the state,” he said. “If not the region and the country.”


Erin Graham 6 years, 10 months ago

These folks do an amazing job. No doubt we've got one of the best Emergency Comm Centers in the region. 'Thank you', doesn't say enough.

deec 6 years, 10 months ago

They can't possibly do a good job, After all they're government employees! End sarcasm.

Sean Rudisel 6 years, 10 months ago

Thanks Joe! Great article. It really is the most difficult job imaginable. Too bad I wasn't working when you came and toured dispatch.

Daniel Speicher 6 years, 10 months ago

As a former dispatcher, I can reaffirm every word being said in this article... These are, in my opinion, some of the hardest working men and women in Lawrence and we all owe them our gratitude for their service to our county... Not to mention their patience and accuracy. They truly are amazing.

--Danny Speicher

somebodynew 6 years, 10 months ago

Having been told where to go by these people (and sometimes for work purposes LOL) they are an amazing bunch. I am also old enough to have seen how the job has changed and gotten extremely more strenuous over the years. It has, of couse, stayed mostly thankless and underappreiciated by citizens and LE.

THANKS to all of you !!!!

LadyJ 6 years, 10 months ago

Great job guys. I do find it a humorous coincidence that this ad appears to the right of the page under "top ads" 911 Call Taker/ Dispatcher/EMD Jefferson County Emergency Communications is now ...

triplegoddess13 6 years, 10 months ago

I don't think it was mentioned in the article but dispatchers answer 911 lines and non-emergency lines. Sometimes that isn't made clear. If you call in non-emergency and are asked to hold, there's a reason for it. Don't hang up and call back in because that just makes it more hectic. And please remember that 911 is only for life/death emergencies and not because you can't find your car or the music is too loud at the neighbor's.

dipweed 6 years, 10 months ago

These folks have my eternal respect and gratitude.

akt2 6 years, 10 months ago

I was wondering what the turnover rate is? 13 years must be an exception. Talking to the rude and unreasonable public 24/7 might get old. Being able to assist someone who is having a true emergency, and those who appreciate their service must make up for all the rest. Their knowledge of human nature is another attribute.

Joe Hyde 6 years, 10 months ago

It was a long time ago when I was a communications officer before becoming a patrolman. With so many incoming phone emergency lines, police/fire radio channels and other l-e comm links to monitor and handle, the pressure inside the radio room often became unreal. Compared to a shift in dispatch, every shift as a uniformed officer in a patrol car felt like a month in the country.

If you ask me (and no one ever has) civilian dispatchers should get the same pay as uniformed patrol officers. Sure, dispatchers work in air conditioned offices but make no mistake: their job is where the rubber meets the road.

Wendy magillicutty 6 years, 10 months ago

High stress jobs are certainly just as dangerous to your health as being in the line of fire. Their stress is incurred EVERY single shift and for the entirety of their shift, 5 days a week. Let's pay them hazard pay because it is a hazard, rather than not because the hazard isn't visible.

BlackVelvet 6 years, 10 months ago

Having been married to an emergency dispatcher in the past, I know first hand how stressful their job can be. I have the utmost admiration for anyone working in that position. They are heroes, no doubt about it. "Dispatchers tell cops where to go....and get away with it...." was her favorite saying.

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