- Associated Press - Sunday, April 20, 2014

FREMONT, Neb. (AP) - The woman on the other end of the line was distraught.

As an emergency dispatcher, Jamie Ferguson is used to dealing with emotional people.

“Unfortunately,” she said, “we deal with people usually at the lowest point in their lives. We deal with them when they’re in crisis, and that’s a hard thing for those people and for us too.”

On this particular day, the caller was actually watching a thief rob her.

“She was obviously freaking out because somebody was stealing her four-wheelers, and she just couldn’t believe somebody would go into her house while she was there,” Ferguson told the Fremont Tribune (https://bit.ly/1kFdHz8).

“She called us so quickly and we had officers that were able to get there quickly. … We ended up catching them,” she said.

Afterward, the caller went to the dispatch center and gave Ferguson a warm hug.

“She said, ‘You don’t understand how thankful I am that you walked me through it,’” Ferguson said.

Dispatcher Kevin Hauck once dealt with a man in his early 20s who threatened to kill himself.

“He left in his vehicle, and because of the newer modern technology we have available, we were able to track him through pinging on his cellphone, and we ended up locating him south of Topeka, Kan.,” Hauck said.

Hauck worked with dispatchers through multiple jurisdictions before the Kansas State Patrol caught up to the man, safe and sound.

“At the time, we thought it was serious,” Hauck said. “It’s a fact that he’s really threatening to harm himself, we had every indication that he was going to do that.”

Tales like that help highlight the work dispatchers do. Last week was National Public Safety Telecommunications Week, which is designed to honor those who handle emergency calls.

Ferguson and Hauck are among 14 full- and part-time dispatchers on communications director Shelly Holzerland’s staff at the Fremont and Dodge County Dispatch Center.

The dispatch center, located at the Fremont Police Department, was formed through a merger of what formerly had been separate city and county centers.

Some incidents draw numerous calls. A March 14 gas line explosion in rural Dodge County resulted in 75 calls within 30 minutes.

“There’s no solution to that, there’s no way for them to know someone else has called. You can’t tell people not to call 911,” Holzerland said. “What we try to do is after the first couple calls, when we get the information we need, one person dispatches and the other person keeps answering, but we shorten it.”

“There could be other unrelated calls coming in,” she said. “That was our fear with that pipeline explosion. We can’t stop answering calls, what if somebody else is having a heart attack or something?”

Dispatchers do their best to get the right resources where they need to be in emergency situations and, Holzerland said, that’s easier when the caller cooperates.

“When people call 911, they need to expect that the dispatcher is going to ask them some questions,” Holzerland said. “Especially for the medical dispatching, but pretty much for any type of emergency that gets called in, we have a list of questions that need to be answered. The quicker we get those questions answered and assess the situation based on the answers, the faster we can get the correct responders en route.

“A lot of times in an extreme emergency, like a big accident or a fire in progress, one of the other dispatchers is already dispatching it as the call-taker is getting more information. I don’t think people realize that. I think they think, ‘Why are you asking me a thousand questions? Just send somebody’,” she said.

“Listen to the instructions of the dispatcher,” Holzerland said. “Don’t hang up until the dispatcher says it’s OK to hang up; stay on the line because sometimes we’ll put them on hold or mute to update the responders, and then when we come back they hang up. We’ll always ask your name and confirm your call-back number so if we do lose you we can call you right back.”

Dispatchers undergo extensive training, including a two-week course through the Nebraska Emergency Services Communication Association.

“Our training program is almost all in-house,” Holzerland said. “It takes a good four months of one-on-one training, and then about two months of shadow type training.”

Maturity, common sense, communication skills, a calm demeanor and sound judgment are important, she said.

“You make hundreds of decisions every shift and you can’t afford to make mistakes, so you have to be able to make a decision and make the right one,” she said.

Holzerland said people should lock their cellphones in order to avoid “pocket dialing” 911.

“Those all have to be followed up on,” she said. “Even if they tell us there’s no emergency, we still get the information and dispatch an officer if we can. We’ve had a number of times where that happened and they said there was no emergency, and then when the officers arrived there was a fight or something going on. The person was trying to get help but didn’t want the other person to know they called, so they call 911 and hang up.”

She also cautioned that a phone that no longer has service can still dial 911, “so don’t give those to your children to play with.”

The job is serious, but not without some levity.

Hauck recalled a myriad of calls about deer, skunks and other varmints running through town.

“The other day it was turkeys in town,” he said.

Holzerland spent six hours last week dealing with stray horses.

“They got out and a lady was helpful and chased them all the way down county roads,” she said. “I was calling all the people who live along the roads to see whose horses they were. She put them in somebody else’s barn, and we had to find out who owns the barn and call him to tell him there were stray horses in there. It was fun.”


Information from: Fremont Tribune, https://www.fremontneb.com

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