January 19, 2011

A growing community has 911 dispatchers stretched to the max

By Tina Foreman
Farmer Staff Writer

With the county growing at an unusually rapid pace, many offices and departments are continually getting busier without any slowdown in sight. Area law enforcement and emergency personnel are firsthand witnesses to just how busy the county has become. And with every emergency call or law enforcement arrest, the 911 dispatchers are feeling the increase too, especially in McKenzie County where the 911 dispatchers do a lot more than just answer the phone.
For most people, when they think of a 911 dispatcher, they imagine a person who sits around all day waiting for the next emergency call, and in some counties that’s exactly what the dispatchers do. However, in McKenzie County they are also expected to cook, clean, do laundry, provide surveillance, book and release prisoners and keep track of all of the county’s emergency personnel. And in some cases, they are expected to cover all of those duties while working alone.
“Our 911 dispatchers get the good, the bad and the ugly, and because they are behind the scenes, they are very rarely noticed,” says Ron Rankin, McKenzie County sheriff. “Right now is an especially hard time for our dispatchers, because we are short staffed and getting more calls than ever before.”
The sheriff’s office has five dispatchers and two training dispatchers, but they need a total of nine dispatchers to cover the shifts.
“We really need to have two people on for each shift,” adds Rankin. “But that isn’t always possible.”
The 911 operators are there whenever there is an emergency. They are the ones who answer the call of a frantic mother whose child has just been injured or the passerby who just witnessed a terrible accident. But in addition to answering those calls and getting people the help they need, the dispatchers in McKenzie County are also the county’s jailers.
“Although they are never in contact with the prisoners, the dispatchers are the ones who take care of the prison inmates,” comments Rankin. “They are there with the officer to book them in and out when they leave. That means all of the paperwork and fingerprinting. Then while the prisoners are in the jail, the dispatchers do their laundry and linens, cook their meals and serve them, as well as cleaning up after meals. In addition, they have to check on the prisoners every 30 minutes during the day and every hour at night. And all the while, they are answering the phones and running the 911 dispatch. I can’t say enough about the great job our dispatchers do.”
According to Rankin, in many counties there is a jailer to do the duties outside of 911. Even though the jail has recently been filled to capacity with prisoners, with other prisoners being transferred due to a lack of space at the McKenzie County Jail, there just isn’t enough need for a jailer in McKenzie County.
“Being a 911 dispatcher in McKenzie County has its own challenges, but for the right people, it is a very self-satisfying job,” adds Tammy Evanson, McKenzie County Sheriff’s Department dispatch supervisor. “Even though the job involves a whole new kind of multi-tasking, the 911 part of it is still the most important and most challenging part of the job.”
Although they don’t hear thank you or know how a situation turned out very often, Evanson says the job is still rewarding.
“As a dispatcher, your job is to get the caller the help they need,” states Evanson. “That is the challenge of the job, but it is also very gratifying to get off a call and think, okay, I did my job.”
Like with any job, there are times when a call doesn’t go exactly the way the dispatcher wants it to. In some cases, especially with so many new people in the community, the callers don’t always know where they are, and at times will give the wrong information, making it much harder for emergency personnel to do their job.
“I often feel bad for my dispatchers,” says Rankin. “There are times when the callers give the wrong information, and it doesn’t matter how many times the dispatcher verifies the information, it still ends up going out wrong and that makes it look like the dispatcher messed up. Of course, everyone makes mistakes, but I think there are a lot of occasions where the dispatchers take the blame for something out of their control.”
According to Rankin, even when you take into account all of the challenges and struggles of the dispatcher’s job, it is still a great job for the right person, and if you think being a dispatcher may be right for you, Rankin and Evanson want to hear from you.
“Right now we are looking for two more dispatchers,” says Evanson. “We need people who are willing to learn and able to multi-task. You don’t need to be the most calm, cool and collected person out there. As long as you are willing to learn and not afraid of the position, being calm at the right time will come with training. Being a dispatcher isn’t black or white, it is a very gray job with lots of rewards and challenges.”