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911 dispatcher has tough but rewarding job

Staff writer

Marion County Dispatchers never know what is waiting on the other side of the phone.

Sandy Mille, of Hillsboro, has been a Marion County dispatcher for nine years. She said that some calls have really hit her heart.

She said that any call involving a child is especially tough.

“That’s the worst call for any parent to make,” she said.

In one situation, a woman came home to find her husband dead. The woman knew that he had been dead for a while and that there was nothing anyone could do to revive him. Mille stayed on the phone with the woman and talked to her until the ambulance arrived. They didn’t even talk about anything in particular — it didn’t matter — but Mille took it upon herself to console the woman until the paramedics could comfort her in person.

The hardest call that Mille ever had to take involved someone she knew. Mille grew up in Lincolnville and one day she took a call where a person had been run over by a truck in Lincolnville. Initially she didn’t know the person’s name but she knew who it was because it is a small community.

As Mille found out more information, she learned that the victim was a close family friend. She continued with the call because she knew that person needed help.

Stress does wear on dispatchers.

The first year Mille worked as a Marion County emergency dispatcher in 2001 there was an escape attempt at the Marion County Jail.

The inmate was returned to his cell without any jailers or deputies getting seriously hurt, but the incident made Mille question whether she wanted to continue with the job.

“It’s either a job you love or you hate,” she said. “If you hate it, you’re not going to stay. I like to help people and in this job we help people on a day to day basis.”

Dispatch operators work two consecutive days of 12-hour shifts per week in the dispatch center above the Marion County Sheriff’s office. Two operators work at the same time.

A dispatcher is equipped with an earpiece for taking phone and radio calls. On March 17, the dispatchers received about 150 calls — a steady day, according to Mille. Operators may take more than 200 calls on a busy day.

During an ice storm or other types of severe weather, sometimes three dispatchers work with supervisor Linda Klenda filling a third computer station. Mille has also stayed past her shift. She worked 15-hour shifts during the ice storm a few years ago that left Marion without power for days at a time.

“Twelve hours felt like 45 hours,” she said.

Even on a normal day, a dispatcher needs to be an efficient multitasker. Two dispatchers have duties to take all 911 phone calls, radio calls, and coordinate ambulance, fire department, and law enforcement efforts. Dispatch operators also do all background checks for local law enforcement.

“What if we’re both on the phone and we hear ‘121?’” Mille asked. “We’ve got to be able to answer them all.”

A dispatcher has many responsibilities. An operator sits in front of five computer screens — one displays a map locating calls, one monitors phone call information, another monitors radio calls, the next shows Computer Assisted Dispatch information (where every officer, ambulance, and fire truck are in the county), and one is used for background checks.

While they have to keep track of the phones and the screens in front of them, dispatchers also have to pay periodic attention to three television screens between the two of them that contain camera feeds, including feeds into every Marion County Jail cell.

Mille said that inmates will often shout or wave a towel outside of their cells when they require attention. When there is down time between calls, both dispatchers pay closer attention to the cameras.

When a dispatcher receives a 911 call, they quickly try to fill in boxes of information on their computer screen about the call while trying to assist the person on the phone as much as possible.

And the assistance part of a dispatcher’s job is critical. When people call 911, they expect to be helped immediately; this means giving out medical information and guidance over a phone.

“When someone is hurt or needs help, that is the most important call,” Mille said. “People expect you to give advice.”

Mille and her usual partner, Mischelle Johnston, do not have medical backgrounds. Both dispatchers are certified with the Emergency Medical Dispatchers program, which is national program. Dispatchers go through three days worth of EMD training and then take a test every two years to become recertified. Mille and Johnston could perform CPR but they did not go to medical school.

If someone calls in needing medical assistance, the operator refers to an apparatus filled with plastic flip cards. The cards feature questions that a dispatcher should ask and guidance they should dispense based on the answers to those questions. A plethora of different situations are represented on the cards, including animal bites (most often it’s a dog bite), electrocution/lighting strike, carbon monoxide poisoning, and child birth.

“I’ve never had a pregnancy or child birth,” Mille said. “Just because it hasn’t happened doesn’t mean it won’t happen. With this job, you see everything.”

Mille said she has seen everything in the background check side of the job in the nine years she has worked at the dispatch center. Rapists, murderers, and even some escapees have been stopped in Marion County.

Mille has also encountered situations requiring a bevy of emergency personnel. For a fire five years ago at the Mennonite Brethren Church in Hillsboro, firefighters and ambulances from Walton, Moundridge, and Harvey County came to help battle the blaze.

“It doesn’t start off big. It’s a structure fire; we follow the steps for a structure fire,” Mille said. “It felt like everybody was there.”

The coordination of personnel falls to the dispatchers. For instance, if the Hillsboro Fire Department is at a fire in Goessel, the dispatcher may have to call the fire department in Peabody or Walton to respond to a fire in Hillsboro.

Because being a dispatcher requires a person to deal seamlessly with hectic situations, Mille and Johnston have developed a good chemistry. They were friends before working together, but they are close enough that Johnston will be the maid of honor at Mille’s wedding at the Christian Church in Marion.

The dispatchers also develop a close relationship with police officers and deputies. Travis Wilson scheduled his wedding to make sure Mille and Johnston could attend. Marion Police Chief Josh Whitwell is officiating at Mille’s wedding.

Dealing with chaos on a daily basis creates a tight communal bond between people who work in emergency response. Not everyone can empathize with what Mille and Johnston have to deal with but police officers, firefighters, and EMS workers can.

Last modified March 25, 2010

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