Local dispatchers adapt to changing role

CRYSTAL LAKE – When Janet Mitchell comes into work, she looks at five screens, types on four keyboards, operates three computer mice and wears a headset to speak on the phone.

One screen tells the Southeast Emergency Communication Center telecommunicator where different emergency vehicles are located, one shows the different phone lines, one lists the frequencies she can listen to, one has maps and then there’s the traditional computer screen.

Over her workspace are three lights: a blue light to signal if she’s on the phone, a red light to say she’s talking on the radio and an orange light to say whether there’s an equipment or tower problem.

Hers is one of six stations at the SEECOM office in Crystal Lake, where telecommunicators provide dispatching services for 14 agencies, mostly in McHenry County.

All day every day, from those stations, telecommunicators relay information to emergency responders from people calling for help. The dispatchers let emergency responders know whether weapons are involved, whether people are hurt, get basic medical information or even help callers keep someone’s airway open.

Being a dispatcher used to be a steppingstone job to being a police officer or firefighter. It’s since become a profession, said Linda Luehring, the executive director of SEECOM.

“You now give medical instruction, you now give fire instruction, you’re getting background information from people and the hazards in the home, they’re collecting a lot of information on how they decide how they deploy people,” Luehring said. “It’s a career for people now.”

Going from a slow shift to running full speed to dispatch people out to an emergency is a talent, Mitchell said.

“If nothing is happening and phones ring, everyone drops everything and starts handling things,” Mitchell said. “You can go from nothing to craziness in a matter of a few minutes.”

Keeping someone calm is key when talking to a person calling in an emergency.

“We ask them to talk slower, and tell them to breathe. People tend to forget to breathe when they’re really excited,” Mitchell said. “So if we get them focused on calming down and just talking to us, that helps ... Sometimes you have to be firm with them and tell them what they need to do.”

Traumatic calls can have the same effect on dispatchers as they do police officers and firefighters. So Mitchell recently was certified in critical incident stress management.

“It was something I was interested in,” Mitchell said. “It is to help dispatchers and emergency personnel cope with an extraordinary amount of stress ... Part of my job is to let go of things. Once something is over, I don’t think of it again.”

However, sometimes closure is hard to come by.

“A lot of times we don’t know the outcomes,” Mitchell said. “We send the ambulance out, we know the person got transported, we don’t know if they’re OK or if it’s more serious than we thought. That’s hard, not knowing the outcome of calls, not knowing if they catch the bad guys sometimes.”

Luehring said a majority of domestic calls occur between 7 p.m. and 2 a.m., and DUIs from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. However, dispatchers cannot believe patterns will always stay true.

“Any of those things can happen at any time,” Luehring said.

Chris Dawson works in McHenry as a telecommunicator, and has been dispatching people to emergencies for eight years.

When she applied for the job, she had to take a psychological test, a typing test and an aptitude test, among other things.

She starts her shift by checking to see if there are any Amber Alerts for missing children, and checks to see what incidents happened in the previous shift.

On slow days, the dispatchers might play games or do some training, such as on how to handle cultural discrepancies and how to continually improve customer service skills.

“The ultimate goal is to get as much information as you need to protect them [callers], the officer and the general public,” Dawson said.

And sometimes there are people having rough days who will call for help in an angry tone, or swear at the dispatcher, Dawson said.

She said she just remembers the emotions are not directed at her.

“If I could get the information, and the situation can be resolved, what’s a word to me?” Dawson said.

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