COLUMBIA CITY — Every day, we are cognizant and thankful for the brave men and women who have dedicated their lives to serving Whitely County as first responders and law enforcement officers.
Behind the scenes, though, is a special group of people: the 911 dispatchers. They are the first to answer the call for help and send out Whitley County’s best to respond.
The only thing dispatchers can expect when they arrive for their shift is unpredictability. The calls and emergencies of yesterday will differ from the calls they receive today. While some people find comfort in the routine of a work day, dispatchers like Kevin DePew thrive on the prospect of the unexpected.
“When you hit that button you don’t know what it’s going to be,” DePew said. “When 911 rings, you just don’t know. There’s always something new … even with some similar calls, it’s always a different person calling.”
Answering phone calls is only one aspect of the job. Multitasking is the secret weapon of a successful dispatcher. When a call comes in, the dispatcher answers and immediately tries to determine the severity of the emergency at hand. At the same time, their fingers are quickly flitting across the keyboard, connecting with the necessary agencies and gathering information to pinpoint exactly where the caller is located.
All the while, the dispatcher tries to keep the caller on the line to assure them that help is on the way and update responders of any changes in the situation.
“I don’t think the public knows what we do,” dispatcher Christy Erne said. “The biggest thing right now is we’re classified as secretarial. And, sure, we do secretarial work, but we do so much more than that.”
If a situation is particularly high-stakes, the dispatcher needs to be the calm and reassuring voice, keeping their personal worries or emotions out of the equation for the moment.
“Other people’s worst day is our every day,” Janelle Schmitt, director of communications for Whitley County Sheriff’s Department, said.
Even when they know help is on the way and the caller hangs up, the dispatchers may find themselves wondering how it worked out. While they were there for the beginning of this journey, most times they aren’t privy to how it ends. All they can do is hope that they had done their job well and move onto the next call.
“We don’t get a lot of closure from the calls,” Erne said. “We don’t know what happens after that call a lot of times.”
The challenges don’t seem to dim the spirits of the dispatch staff. DePew shared that he had been working in the department for three years and Erne has been working dispatch for nine years. Schmitt added that most of the dispatchers have stuck around for several years.
“They want to help their neighbors,” Schmitt said. “Most of our people live in Whitley County so we are truly helping our neighbors. Once you start and like it, its hard to leave.”
There are currently 12 people on staff at the Whitley County Sheriff’s Dispatch, with at least two ready to answer calls at any given time. Schmitt advised that they were currently at full staff, at least budget-wise. When one of the regular dispatchers calls out sick or takes vacation, it often results in the others working overtime to fill the gap. Schmitt recently requested permission from the Whitley County Council to transfer $6,000 from the computer repair fund to help cover overtime pay.
“We would like to have at least one more person,” Schmitt said. “That would maybe give us a reprieve of overtime and allow three people to be working.”
Even when the money is there to hire additional staff, finding the right person for the job is often difficult.
“Dispatching is not for everybody,” Schmitt said. “If you don’t make it past your probation period, we have to hire again.”
The chosen few who have built a career around being on the front lines of the call for help often don’t get praise, but the glory for them lies in knowing that life goes on, and there will always be another person to help.
“You don’t realize it when you see it on the road,” DePew said. “You see fire and police there, but while that’s going on there, we are still getting 50 other calls because the county doesn’t just stop.”