There has been a lot of focus on “frontline” workers during the pandemic. But there’s one group on the front line that is often overlooked. They are the dispatchers at the 911 call centers.
Here in Ravalli County, Sheriff’s Communications Lieutenant Zae Hudson is in charge of managing the 911 Center and acts as a liaison between law enforcement, fire and medical. Hudson has 25 years in law enforcement and says his time on the streets helped him learn about the dispatchers’ world.
Hudson took over management of the center nine years ago and began the process of changing the culture so that employees feel valued and proud of the work they do. “Nine years ago, this department had the county’s largest amount of sick time as well as the most employee complaints,” said Hudson. “We’ve restructured our culture here. We now have a dedicated team of communication specialists,” what Hudson prefers to call them. Hudson emphasized that communication is what the dispatchers are really good at.
The second week of April is National Dispatchers Week. “It’s fun to celebrate this week to truly honor the sacrifice and the dedication these folks provide to their community and responders,” said Hudson. Currently there are 10 dispatchers. One dispatcher has been with the department for almost 20 years. Two people are always on duty, 24/7, waiting for the calls to come in. The “call taker” answers the call and ascertains the location of the caller. She/he also figures out what responders are needed. The “dispatcher” pages or radios the police, fire department and ambulance service in the various jurisdictions, sending out the necessary resources. The dispatchers also give medical instructions while the responders are en route to the scene.
In 2020, the 911 center received 33,000 calls for service. 14,137 of those were emergencies. 1506 were abandoned calls (hang ups). Hudson said that those hang ups are problematic because even if they are due to a call error they still get followed up with a call or visit, which takes law enforcement away from important work and slows down efficiency. He said some are even “butt dials,” so he asks that citizens learn how to operate their cell phones correctly.
There are times when things are slow, but there are other times when everything seems to happen at once. “We call that the chaos cycle,” said Hudson. “We might have a house fire, a vehicle accident, and a domestic abuse call all coming in together. We never know when the next one is going to start.”
Along with the change in management philosophy that Hudson has implemented, the center has been upgrading the tools and equipment. “We use technology, training and equipment to continually reinforce the culture,” said Hudson. “We’ve got to that pinnacle now that is just incredible to observe.” For example, the county and the city of Hamilton cooperated on a computer-aided dispatch system which proved to be highly successful. All the responders can see the information on a monitor or on their phones. Now Stevensville, Darby, Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital ambulance service, and all the fire districts in the county have bought into the system and now have access. “It was a game changer,” said Hudson.
Hudson says he is short-handed right now and is looking to add four more communication specialists. Requirements include a high school diploma or equivalent, and a clean criminal record. Applicants receive an introduction which includes a presentation of “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” then take a written test, a personality test, and a hearing and typing screening. Starting wage is $14.46 per hour, with a raise of $1.75 after one year. There are automatic raises and chances for advancement, as well as good benefits. Hudson said they try to maintain a fun and laid back environment (no dress code) and no one gets laid off during tough times. “We have fun until that phone rings,” said Hudson.
The next testing date is April 21 with applications due by April 20. Applications can be picked up at the Sheriff’s Office or on the website at ravalli.us (click on Departments, then on 911 Dispatch Center). Although initial job qualifications are basic, a dispatcher has to obtain several certifications during their first year and regular training continues. National statistics indicate that only about 7% of the population can handle the job due to the high level of stress. “It takes a very special skill set,” said Hudson, to be able to stick with it.
Hudson said that due to COVID-19 they won’t be able to have a typical celebration for National Dispatchers Week. Two dispatchers are currently out sick. Hopefully, they will be able to celebrate when everyone is healthy again.
“When we have those emergency incidents the people always remember the responders who show up. But they forget the calm, helpful voice that initiates all first responders to the emergency incident while giving life-saving instruction over the telephone.”
Victoria Howell can be contacted at: [email protected] or (406)207-8793.