Zac Towns is talking about launching Lifestar helicopters and how delivering a baby for the first time probably will be a bit awkward and maybe even a little nerve-racking
All very interesting . . . but, I feel like I should interrupt to point out that there is a man with a machete in the next cubicle over. Just saying.
Towns says he had noticed that. More accurately, he had heard that. Everyone in this makeshift conference room had. It makes sense. There’s not a better set of ears in Douglas County. This is one of four squads that serve as dispatchers in the 911 emergency call center that serves Lawrence and the entire county.
In the glamorous world of crime-fighters and rescuers, everybody has their own set of tools. Police officers have guns, firefighters have hoses, and crime scene investigators — so I’ve gathered from countless "CSI" and "Quincy" episodes — have iron guts that allow them to eat a tuna fish sandwich while conducting an autopsy.
What do dispatchers have? Finely tuned ears and minds to match.
Yes, this is why dispatchers don’t have nearly as many television shows devoted to them.
I’m guessing you have surmised that there’s not actually a guy standing on a file cabinet with a machete in the cubicle beside me. No, in that cubicle there is a dispatcher on the phone dealing with an incident that involves a man and a machete. Excuse me for getting a little excited as it all played out in front of me.
I felt like somebody ought to.
Dispatchers don’t seem to be an overly excitable bunch. Maybe sitting in front of five computer screens all day has a calming effect. (Their current desks have five screens, but a new center that will open this spring at the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center, will feature seven screens per desk.)
“This job is not so much about having a college education or something like that,” said Scott Ruf, the director who oversees the crew of 28 dispatchers. “It is about an ability to make quick decisions and good decisions.”
Here’s how the system works on a normal day: There are four dispatchers and one supervisor. They work for 12 hours each day. One week it is for 48 hours. The next week it is for 36. For four months, they get the day shift. The next four months, they get the night shift.
When the shift begins, one person is designated as the primary call taker. Another is designated as the dispatcher for fire and medical calls, another as the dispatcher for law enforcement, and the fourth serves as the info dispatcher, which involves everything from looking up case numbers for an officer in the field to calling for a tow truck to remove an illegally parked car.
So, the phone rings. If the primary call taker isn’t already on the phone, she answers it. The first piece of information requested is always "where are you calling from?" If you are calling from a land line, chances are dispatchers already know your location, but that is not true with the wireless calls that now make up about 80 percent of the 300,000 calls the center receives each year.
Then, the dispatcher wants to know the nature of the emergency. All the while, she is typing the details into the computer. As soon as she determines it is a medical call, for instance, the details begin showing up on the screen of the fire and medical dispatcher. That dispatcher can then send out the proper alert to the correct fire and medical station. On average, it takes 45 to 60 seconds from the time the phone rings to the time fire and medical personnel are alerted to the emergency. For law enforcement incidents, the average is 60 to 90 seconds.
While the fire and medical dispatcher is relaying information to the appropriate fire station, the primary call taker is still on the line gathering more information. Sometimes people get frustrated by all the questions because they think they are delaying the dispatcher from sending out the call for help. That’s not the case. A separate dispatcher already has sent out the alarm.
But what happens when the primary call taker is already on the phone when another 911 line begins to ring? Well, the dispatcher who is designated as the secondary call taker answers the phone. On this day, that’s the fire and medical dispatcher.
He’s busy, though, dispatching the medical call that the primary call taker is still working. Well, guess what? This job gets busy from time to time. Dispatchers are trained to be talking on the phone with 911 callers about one incident while also communicating with fire and medical or police about a separate incident. A series of buttons allows them to control who they are talking to at any moment, but there is no button to control who is talking to them at any moment. It can and does happen that parties from both incidents — or sometimes three separate incidents — are talking to the dispatcher all at once.
“Sometimes callers will be talking and there is a lag before I answer them,” Towns says. “They think I’m gone, but I’m just talking to someone else for a moment. I’m always here, and I’m always listening.”
I know, I know. You want to know what happened to the guy with the machete. Well, it was a man who wanted to hurt himself. There was no need for an ambulance while I was there. But really, I don’t know what happened. That’s the life of a dispatcher. There’s not much closure.
But dispatchers do know other things. For example, they know some people get really worried about cats in trees. Yes, people really do call about a cat being stuck in the tree.
“You just have to remind them that the cat really will come down,” says Darren Johnson, a seven-year veteran of the dispatch center.
But mostly they know that life can get crazy — often times at the same time the cat has gotten stuck in the tree.
“We get all those dumb calls about the cats in the trees or why no one is answering the phone at the electric company,” Ruf says. “But when you go from those calls to a mom calling with a 4-year old in the bathtub and he’s not breathing, that is when this job can take a toll on you.”
Every dispatcher pays that toll at some point, and they probably never will get much recognition for it.
After all, listening doesn’t make for great television. But it sure does make a great difference.
— Each Sunday, Lawhorn’s Lawrence focuses on the people, places or past of Lawrence and the surrounding area. If you have a story idea, send it to Chad at firstname.lastname@example.org.