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Chaos coordinators: A day in the life of a 9-1-1 operator

As National Emergency Telecommunicators Week comes to a close, we highlight the communication specialists who work the tireless, and often thankless, shifts at the Public Safety Center in Dickinson. We meet the voices guiding our first responders and bringing relief to area residents through 9-1-1.

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Communication Specialist Kayleene Holzer works on a call at the dispatch center for the City of Dickinson Public Safety Center Friday, April 16. (Jackie Jahfetson/The Dickinson Press)
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A little ding on the operator's screen denoted with red, yellow and green lights alerts the 9-1-1 operator of an incoming call. Not knowing what might be on the receiving line of that phone call is what keeps communication specialists at the City of Dickinson Public Safety Center mindful and always at the edge of their seats.

Working 12-hour shifts, communication specialists see a variety of calls, Public Safety Support Supervisor Liz Okerson said.

“You have no idea what's coming. Every day is a different day. There's some routine to your tasks that happen here but this center took just over 70,000 calls last year between emergency and non-emergency, and there's no way that every single one of those calls was ever the same — no two parking complaints are the same even,” Okerson said. “It's so hard. I can bring somebody into training and they can go through 12 weeks without taking what we would term a ‘hot call.’ Or they could take one on their first day; it's just the luck of the draw.”

Okerson worked at Stark County as an assistant emergency manager and transferred over to the City of Dickinson Public Safety Center in May 2019.

“I've always enjoyed emergency operations type things (and) safety operations. And I have quite a few years working in a call center many years ago when I was in college,” Okerson said. “It's incredible watching these people do what they do, and it feels like a good mission.”

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Communication Specialist Andreya Little started at the City of Dickinson Public Safety Center in December 2018, and also received a life saving award in March.

“It feels good to know that you're making a difference and helping people on what could be their worst days. I've done varying customer service jobs and I've worked with more community-based programs and stepping back from the community base to go to a more corporate line job. It really put in perspective that I just preferred helping people and being more involved in the community around me and making a difference here at home,” Little said. “So it kind of just felt like the natural progression for me to step into this position.”

Sometimes that call could be a life or death situation, other times you never know what you might get, Okerson said.

“I think that’s what I find most incredible about what they do. Watching them, you can see the adrenaline spike when they take a call. You can kind of hear it or (by just) watching their body language. But they handle things so quickly and so routinely. And then afterwards, they're like, oh,” Okerson said, with a big sigh. “But watching them operate in their natural environment, unless you know them, 90% of the time you can't tell that they're doing anything other than answering a basic phone call.”

As a 9-1-1 dispatcher, Okerson said she looks for people who have an act to multitask between phones, radios, computer skills and everything in between. Traits of calm, quick thinking and a person who has empathy is what Okerson strives to hire in an employee.

“There's something about the people that work in this environment. There's a quality about them that (shows) strength. But it's wrapped in a lot of empathy,” Okerson said. “That's what they have to have to be able to listen to somebody screaming in their ear (when) something terrible is happening, and still be able to dispatch all that call to whoever needs it to get them help and stay on the phone with those people until help is there.”

The dispatch center at the City of Dickinson Public Safety Center deals with all three law agencies in Stark County, from the Stark County Sheriff’s Office, Dickinson Police Department and Belfield Police Department. It works with three ambulance services, seven fire departments, a dive and rescue team as well as a regional hazmat entity.

Even if a call is not from the Dickinson jurisdiction, Okerson noted that there is still coordination between dispatch centers that are 90 miles apart.

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Remaining calm and collective is a part and parcel of the the job, Okerson said.

“I think the hardest part about it is we can go for hours and not take any calls even… And then all of a sudden, you can have that instant where we have a however many acre fire on Highway 8…” Okerson said. “So, I mean it could be anything. It could be a fatality accident on the side of downtown or on the interstate.

“I think what’s incredible about what they do is that they can go from screaming mom, who's missing their child, to answering a traffic stop to taking the next call. Somehow they just manage it.”

There are some common misconceptions in the public regarding 9-1-1 operators as seen with motion pictures. Okerson noted that dispatch centers are not equipped with cameras that keep an eye on the city at all times. With a cell phone call, the information is pinged to a tower, but the more information the caller gives to the operator is crucial in allowing for first responders to get to the scene at a faster rate, she said. Operators are listening for verbal cues and background noises, but the more information a caller can provide will allow for quick assembly.

“We're only the information collectors; we collect the information and then we disseminate it. We have to know what's going on in order to be able to send the right help,” she noted.

Okerson added, “We're the first of everything. You don't get law enforcement, ambulance or fire without us. We dispatch for all of Stark County, so we could have somebody in Belfield and they're needed in Richardton. In the time that it takes help to get from Belfield to Richardton, these people are staying on the phone the entire time to give pre-arrival instructions. They're giving CPR instructions there, it's instructing people on locking their doors and staying inside. So they really truly are the very first step in emergency… we’re the first first responder — the faceless first responder.”

Jackie Jahfetson is a graduate of Northern Michigan University whose journalism path began in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan as a freelancer for The Daily Mining Gazette. Her previous roles include editor-in-chief at The North Wind and reporter at The Mining Journal in Marquette, Mich. Raised on a dairy farm, she immediately knew Dickinson would be her first destination west as she focuses on gaining aptitude for ranch life, crop farming and everything agriculture. She covers hard news stories centered on government, fires, crime and education. When not fulfilling deadlines and attending city commission meetings, she is a budding musician and singer.
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