Is your vision of an emergency dispatcher a person sitting in front of a single computer screen with a phone on the desk next to them? Or does it go back a wee bit further to Lily Tomlin and a switchboard? Well, both images are wrong.
A few weeks ago, I had the rare opportunity to tour the Garfield County Emergency Communications Authority, more commonly known as “dispatch” or Garco911. The Executive Director, Carl Stephens, was generous enough to allow the Garfield County Public Information Officers Group to hold our monthly meeting in their conference room. The facility is located here in Rifle. There used to be dispatch locations in Glenwood, Parachute and Rifle, but in 2001 they all combined into the one center here. Stephens explained that the merger saves a tremendous amount of money primarily due to the cost of staffing and equipment. The technical equipment needed for emergency response only has a 5-7 year lifespan.
Garco911 has a staff of 25 including 18 dispatchers. There are generally four on duty at any given time. They work 12-hour shifts with 3-4 days off. Garco911 has reciprocity with Grand Junction so if all lines are busy, the call will automatically roll over to those dispatchers. A person calling 911 will never get a busy signal. Dispatchers undergo 16 weeks of intensive on the job training which includes learning not only how to give clear emergency instructions, but how to coordinate the technical aspects of the job. They also need to learn how to handle stress and be capable of spending long hours in one spot.
One of the most amazing things about the center is the individual workstations for the dispatchers. They are large pods with 5 screens, 3 keyboards, 4 computer mouses and 2-foot pedals which help work the phones and the radio. It’s absolutely nothing like on TV where they have one screen and a telephone headset. A red light atop a pole indicates whether or not they are on a call so their colleagues are aware.
Watching them work is incredible. Although only one emergency call came in during our short visit, it was definitely intense. The dispatcher taking the call was simultaneously talking to the person who called 911, dispatching emergency personnel, receiving information yelled across the room from another dispatcher who was speaking to a first responder, typing into the computer and giving first aid instructions. The whole thing took multitasking to another level. The entire time during the call, the room was calm and cool and you would never have guessed what was actually happening if you had no audio. I was astonished and very impressed. The people capable of performing this job are in a league of their own.
Recently, the 911 system was upgraded. The upgrades helped improve the ability to locate where a call is coming from. If a call comes from a landline, the address will automatically pop up on one of the dispatch computer screens. However, the majority of calls these days come from cell phones which are, obviously, mobile. Improvements in software able to pinpoint location are critical for a timely response to an emergency. Texts to 911 currently get routed to Larimer County, but that will soon be changing as well. Interestingly, Stephens noted that they only receive a few texts a month. Most people still call.
The types of calls coming into the center vary, but all of the dispatchers on duty seemed to agree that between 4:00p.m.and 6:00p.m.there is a definitive spike in traffic-related incidents. I guess rush hour happens even in small towns! They take over 106,000 calls per year. Stephens did point out that many of those calls are duplicitous meaning they receive more than one call about the same incident. Anyone who has ever called 911 only to be told “we are aware of that incident” can vouch for the veracity of that statement.
Calling for help in an emergency has evolved a long way since the old days of dialing “0” or running to a neighbor’s house for assistance. This evolution was so gradual that we often take it for granted. Observing these individuals in action makes me extremely grateful not only for technological advances, but for the people working there. Great technology isn’t great without exceptional people who know how to use it and can stay calm under the most extraordinary circumstances.
The same technological advances that allow for quick response when you call 911 are also utilized to call you in the event of an emergency. Citizens are reminded to be sure to sign up for the Garfield County Emergency Notification System. This state-of-the-art system will notify you about an important situation in your area, such a fire or flood. It’s very easy just go to www.garco911.com to sign up.
Rifle Rapport is a periodic article featuring the people and projects of the City of Rifle. If you have suggestions for future articles, please contact Kathy Pototsky at 970-665-6420 or firstname.lastname@example.org.