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12-hour shifts, burnout and pocket dials: The world of 911 dispatchers in Gratiot County

By Ralph Echtinaw

Although Gratiot County is hardly a hotbed of crime, accidents and medical emergencies, 17,818 emergency 911 calls were made here last year and handled by just ten dispatchers.

Add the 18,860 non-emergency calls that Gratiot County Central Dispatch received last year and you have an average of 100 calls per day.

“I’m proud of these (dispatchers),” said 911 Director Dan Morden. “When it gets going in there they’re rocking and rolling. They might handle 20 or 30 (calls) in an hour. And they might go through four hours when there’s nothing.”

Central Dispatch

A dispatcher sits at his work station.

Morden, who spent 15 years as a dispatcher with the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, reverts to that role when things get busy.

“I’ve done that on several occasions here in the past six months,” he said. “When something bad is going on people need help. And even my people need help. So if I’m here I hop in and try to help out where I can.”

Gratiot County dispatchers work 12-hour shifts at their headquarters in the Ithaca industrial park. Starting pay is $16.34 per hour and tops out at $20.71 after six years. A high school diploma or GED are the only educational requirements to be a dispatcher. On-the-job training takes 16-22 weeks.

Central Dispatch is funded by a $3-per-phone surcharge on everyone in Gratiot County.

That generates $1.1 million per year and is supplemented by $100,000 from state government.

Get it right the first time

One might think it’s a breeze to just talk on the phone as opposed to being a police officer, firefighter or emergency medical responder, but dispatchers must get the right information from callers or those same emergency responders (and the people they try to save) could be in jeopardy.

“Burnout is a huge thing in public safety and really especially with public safety dispatchers,” Morden said.

Although Gratiot County dispatchers recently got a raise of $2 and hour, they still make less than people filling many other jobs.“There are a lot of other jobs out there that pay a heck of a lot more than $14 and change,” Morden said. “And there’s a lot less responsibility. I would hope folks in Gratiot County would not want someone answering the phone if their life is on the line and getting paid chump change.”

And there’s a shortage of dispatchers.

“It’s scary how hard it is to get good people,” Morden said. “It takes 16-22 weeks to train them to get to the skill level they need to be at. And then you have to retain them. And that can be a real challenge. You have to pay them adequately and don’t burn them out. It’s stressing enough as it is. Not every 911 call is a terrible call, but those terrible calls will hang with you. And if you don’t get time away from here and don’t learn how to deal with those stressors you’ll have health problems and all kinds of issues. So they deserve their time away from here.”

St. Louis Police Chief Richard J. Ramereiz Jr. is a member of the 911 Authority, a governing body that meets every other month, and has nothing but praise for dispatchers. “They do a lot of work for us and we appreciate that very much,” he said.

Although the work situation at Central Dispatch is stable now, it wasn’t the case in March 2018 when Morden was named interim 911 Director. “When I started here as the interim 911 director I had seven dispatchers to run 24/7,” he said. “I was burning them out. And I was working dispatch. And I had orders from the 911 Authority to not work dispatch. But when someone called in sick and we couldn’t find anyone to come in (there was no choice).”

Morden is grateful to Mark Duflo, his immediate predecessor as 911 Director, who stayed on as a dispatcher. “That was a bacon saver,” Morden said.

Headaches

One might think that a 911 director’s list of headaches would include 911 abuse calls, but that’s not the case in Gratiot County. “We don’t get many of those,” Morden said. “Of the ones that we do get, yeah, it’s going to be children. And usually they’re resolved relatively quickly. Rarely do we have to assign a police officer to it and talk to mom and dad about the kids. But it does happen.”

The most troublesome 911 calls are “pocket dials.” That’s when a phone in a pocket or purse bumps into something that activates the emergency call button. Dispatchers end up listening to “the funniest things,” Morden said. “People will be driving down the road and you listen to conversations with husband and wife, or mom and kids. You hear people eating. You name it. And sometimes it’s hard for them to hear us. We’re almost yelling into our phone. trying to get them to pay attention to us. But their phone might be in a purse or whatever. Those are the most challenging and frustrating for us.”

Morden recommends carrying your phone in a case. “It protects the phone from getting inadvertently activated,” he said.

What does Morden wish the average person knew about 911?

“When you dial 911 you’re not talking to a police officer, paramedic or fireman,” he said. “You’re talking to a trained professional, but we can’t give you legal advice. We have a lot of questions we have to ask. A lot of people get frustrated by the number of questions we ask. But there’s a reason why. The most important thing to us is where you are. Know the address where you’re at, or know the facility name or business name. And then we’re going to want to know what’s going on. We don’t need a life story. We want to know why you called for help today. There’s going to be a lot of other questions that we ask, probably in rapid succession. We’re not being rude. But there are probably other callers in the queue, and they want their emergencies handled as well. So we have to be efficient. Be patient with us.

“A lot of the questions we ask is to protect our first responders. So that way our first responders can protect you the public. If we don’t do our job and get the information we need, and our first responders get injured or hurt as a result of not getting that stuff, then our first responders are no good to other people. That’s what the whole mission is.”

Lastly, if you see something that you want to report but it’s not an emergency, you can reach Central Dispatch at 989-875-7505.

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