June 15, 2024

Dispatchers are in the middle of the action

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Jennifer Ebacher may have the most exciting job in Grant County. She is a dispatcher with the Grant County Sheriff’s Office located in the basement of the courthouse in Elbow Lake. Ebacker, along with four other dispatchers, works a 12 hour shift in front of eight busy computer screens, and a large TV-sized monitor, wearing a headphone, taking 911 emergency calls, and dispatching law enforcement, emergency personnel or fire departments to the scene of the emergency. Or she is taking radio calls from deputies and running driver’s license numbers or vehicle license plates. She also monitors dispatches from neighboring counties, the Minnesota State Patrol, and state-wide law enforcement to stay aware of what is going on. 

She often talks to a panicked 911 caller at the same time she is dispatching law enforcement, emergency medical personnel or a fire department.

“You have to be good at multitasking for this job,” she says, “especially because the caller is often screaming excitedly in your ear.”

A fully-staffed department would have six dispatchers, but Grant County is short one position.

Ebacher received a couple of weeks of training at Alex Tech before starting dispatch work in another county. She came to Grant County seven years ago. New dispatchers are now trained on the job, but take on-line courses in CPR and other skills. CPR training is necessary because dispatchers are often called on to talk a 911 caller though applying CPR to a heart attack victim.

When you call 911, your location is automatically tracked once the dispatcher takes the call. His or her first job is to keep you on the line long enough to get your name, phone number, and the nature of the emergency in case the connection is lost.  Sometimes, in the excitement of the moment, these simple facts are hard to get.

Ebacher often can tell who is calling by their voice. Dispatchers are not encouraged to give callers their names, but sometimes do if they recognize the caller and it calms them down to talk to someone they know.

“We get ‘Dispatch Ears’ which is when you go to a restaurant and hear two or three conversations going on around you at one time.”

If the 911 caller does not speak English, the dispatcher contacts Language Line where translators can tap into the call and translate as they go. About 90 percent of non-English speaking 911 callers  speak Spanish, but Ebacher recalls one that was French. Language Line handled it.

The worst calls to get are domestic disturbances or bad vehicle accidents. In both cases the callers are usually emotionally distraught.

“You have to be a good listener.”

This past winter, Grant County Dispatch was busy taking calls from stranded motorists, and during last summer’s wind storm and tornado, Grant County Dispatch was really put to the test.

“I was on until 5:00 a.m.” Ebacher said.

Or how about what dispatcher Brenda Exe went through when the Hoffman elevator blew up and caught on fire March 24. When the fire started, she took sixteen 911 calls for the elevator fire, three for a medical emergency  in Herman. She called out the ambulance and paged the first responders for the medical, paged out multiple fire departments for the elevator fire, then  called Douglas and Stevens county to get their ladder trucks going. She did this all in five minutes. 

Dispatcher Tina McGrath explained, “Douglas and Stevens Counties also took multiple 911 calls  for us as we can only take in four 911 calls at a time and if those lines are tied up they rollover to another county.”

Thankfully the majority of the 12 to 20 calls dispatchers get during a shift are Admin calls. These are non-emergency calls such as activating a burn permit or accidental 911 calls, which have to be handled like any 911 call with a deputy dispatched.

 “In this job, you never know what the day will bring, but it’s always something different.”

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