Friday, April 13th, 2018
Sheriff: Dispatchers provide vital service
Unsung heroes being honored
By Tom Stankard
Mercer County Sheriff's dispatchers Connie Cook, left, and April Gerlach answer. . .
CELINA - Dispatchers are one of the most critical components of the Mercer County Sheriff's Office, Sheriff Jeff Grey said.
This week is National Public Safety Telecommunications Week, honoring the often unsung heroes at the other end of 911 calls. Dispatchers gather information so those in the field know what they're getting into, Grey said.
"Without them, the patrol guys wouldn't be successful," he added.
The Mercer County Sheriff's Office has nine full-time dispatchers, who are overseen by 911 Administrator Monte Diegel.
Every day and every call are different, said 27-year veteran Connie Cook and 14-year veteran April Gerlach.
For eight hours a day, a team of two dispatchers answers all 911 calls coming from the county and are in charge of dispatching 10 fire departments and four squad houses, Cook said. They work around the clock to make sure someone is always there to help.
Dispatchers begin each call the same way, Cook noted, by finding out the caller's chief complaint and how they can help out him or her.
Cook said her favorite calls to handle are fires.
"We like a good fire," she said. "As long as no human life is lost, we like it because we have to do a ton of dispatching, and we like it that way."
Vehicle accidents also generate a flurry of activity for dispatchers, Diegel added.
"Accidents on any given road give us a lot of calls," he said. "Everybody has a cellphone so a little fender bender can generate dozens of calls."
Eighty percent of calls coming in are made via cellphones, Diegel pointed out. This can make life more difficult for dispatchers, Cook added.
When a 911 call comes in from a landline, the address appears on the screen in front of them. But if it's made on a cellphone, Cook said they ask the caller for an address while radio towers are pinpointing the caller's location.
The nine-member team handled an average of 79 calls per day last year and 28,906 total calls, which is up from 23,209 calls made in 2016. Diegel said he could not point to a particular reason for the increase.
This month, Mercer County become the ninth county in the state to enable a text-to-911 service. Diegel said dispatchers in the office haven't fielded any texts for help so far and noted the most popular and preferred way to report something is still to call.
Dispatchers also are able to text back a caller if he or she has hung up during the initial call, Diegel noted. The caller is more likely to respond this way, Cook said.
Dispatchers don't undergo any training before the first day, Cook said. They learn as they go.
"It's intense," she said. "By the third month, if they can't handle things, that's usually when they say it's not for me."
Some calls can have more of an emotional toll than others, Cook noted.
"I've listened to people die and I've listened to an elderly woman beg her husband not to leave her because he died," she recalled.
Being able to talk about these situations with their coworker helps them leave it behind at work, Cook said.
When Gerlach said she is able to help a caller through a tough situation, "it's icing on the cake."