Recognizing The Unseen Heroes

Brandi Greatbatch sits at her workstation for Mahaska County 911 Communications.

Brandi Greatbatch sits at her workstation for Mahaska County 911 Communications.

Last Week was National Public Safety Telecom­municators Week, recognizing the unseen work of the men and women who answer your call for help.

Oskaloosa, Iowa – Located inside the Mahaska County Law Center is a secure room where individuals of Mahaska County 911 Communications are the first individuals you speak with when an emergency strikes.

If you think they just answer the phone when you call, then your idea of what these individuals do every day will be changed when you’re done reading.

“They are called the unseen first responders for a reason,” said Jamey Robinson, Mahaska County EMA/911 Administrator. “No one thinks about that dispatcher that was on the phone for 20 minutes telling mom how to do CPR on their child until an ambulance or an officer could get there.”

Dispatchers at the Mahaska County 911 Center are all certified in fire service dispatching, law enforcement dispatching, and emergency medical dispatching.

Each of those certifications train telecommunicators to follow protocols with the same set of standardized questions, giving the same standardized advice on things like how to control bleeding, how to deliver a baby, how to do CPR, among their many other tasks.

Once on the scene, dispatchers relay information like what door to use, watch out for dogs, or other data available to help make the most successful outcome possible. Dispatchers use a detailed map of the county to help efficiently guide responders to the caller.

Beyond the initial phone call from someone in need, dispatchers are the lifeline for law enforcement. They are responsible for officer safety, informing them of potential threats persons they are encountering may pose.

Sometimes calls impact dispatchers emotions more than others, and Robinson says that if dispatchers need an opportunity to step away to deal with what just happened, “We’re pretty good about making sure they can get that time away. Nothing breaks my heart more than when I get the call that we’ve had a bad call and I’ll come in and see one of my staff members sitting at the radio crying.”

“A lot of times when this stuff happens, you just want to hug your kids and tell them you love them. I know for myself as a paramedic for 16 years, every time I’ve ever had a bad call or something that involved a child, first thing I did when I was done was I called my kids. I told them I loved them and I wanted to hug them,” said Robinson of the emotions that come with being a first responder.

“I truly never appreciated dispatch as much as I do now,” said Robinson. “Even now when I have to sit at the radio or take those phone calls, its hard for me because I want to run out the door. That’s what I’m used to doing. Sitting there, you truly do feel like your hands are tied. You’re trying to walk them through doing those chest compressions, but it’s hard to tell someone, press two inches down, you want to feel popping. If you don’t feel popping, you’re not doing it right. Do that 30 times and then give two breaths but not too fast because if you blow too fast, the air goes in their stomach. So it’s a lot of information for someone who’s in a panic mode to take in. Our staff does a fantastic job.”

Brandi Greatbatch has been a dispatcher for Mahaska County 911 nearly 11 years.

Greatbatch says the job of dispatching involves a lot of multitasking and training. Keep the caller calm and give them help as fast as we can and do our best to keep our officers safe while they do it.

When those initial moments of a desperate person on the phone, calling because it’s possibly the worst day of their life, Greatbatch says there is an initial moment of panic. “But then you realize you are the person that’s there to keep them calm and get them help. It just kicks in. Your professionalism kicks in. You do what you need to do at the moment. It’s automatic.”

Janel Legvold works the 911 console at the Mahaska County 911 Center

Janel Legvold works the 911 console at the Mahaska County 911 Center (file photo)

Janel Legvold has also been a Mahaska County dispatcher for nearly 11 years.

Legvold was a volunteer firefighter and was looking for a job. She had never considered dispatching as a career. “I pretty much just fell into this job with blind luck, and have never looked back. I love this job.”

Legvold loves almost everything about her job. “Even the routine calls, neighbor complaints. That kind of stuff. We’re still helping people.”

A dispatcher for Mahaska County 911 uses nine screens of information, with approximately two to three windows open on each screen, which makes for a large amount of information to process. That information allows the two-person dispatch team to work in unison, while one is speaking with a caller, the other one is able to dispatch the appropriate first responders. When an officer requests information on a car plate, the other dispatcher is looking up the owners of the car, and able to provide information about the owner.

Beyond the multitasking at the workstation, dispatchers also listen to multiple radios to be situationally aware of events taking place in nearby counties. High-speed chases or large fires may impact Mahaska County first responders, and being prepared to dispatch the appropriate people is important.

While all of that is going on, dispatchers are still answering calls from the public.

Large events, like a recent fire, will have multiple callers to 911. Each call must be meticulously answered to be certain that all information about the scene, or potentially another emergency, are properly recorded and answered.

When it comes to prioritizing in such stressful times, “safety is always the priority,” says Greatbatch. “We get the normal citizen complaint or an animal call, those are obviously towards the lower end, they’ll wait, and they’ll get to them as they can.”

“We are the county’s 511,” says Legvold. “If they need a phone number for something, they call us; directions to get somewhere… this is UPS drivers, the general public; cows out, animals that are injured, ping cellphones when someone is missing, contact tow trucks, medical helicopters, etc.”

“I’ve never had to contact the national guard,” says Legvold. “Thank you, God, I never want to.”

She does have that number just in case.

When those outside the profession think she only answers a phone, Legvold responds, “Yeah, that’s part of the job. We answer the phone, we dispatch out, we take care of a million other little details behind the scenes.”

Legvold also takes the responsibility of helping first responders return home safely to their families seriously.

“When you hang up, that’s when it all hits,” said Greatbatch.

Mahaska County 911 Dispatcher Janel Legvold takes a 911 call. (file photo)

Working through those tough moments is something each dispatcher does, and each deals with the trauma in different ways. For Greatbatch, that’s talking with her fellow dispatchers. “We are our own support group, between each other, the officers, the other dispatchers. We’re all family here. We go through everything together.”

With HIPAA privacy laws, dispatchers don’t often get closure for those life and death calls they assist on. “It’s nice when we do, but otherwise that unknown is just as bad.”

“There’s a lot of times you go home and cry at night, and that’s your release,” added Greatbatch.

Those tough calls stay with them, says Legvold. “There are times I can still hear things I wish I hadn’t heard. There are still times that I still feel a little hopeless. We all have those one or two calls that stay with us; that when we’re off the phone, we go cry.”

“When somebody calls in and says, my dad’s not breathing, we give them the option to try and do life-saving steps. We walk them through those life-saving steps to give that person a chance. I think sometimes that’s the hardest part of it. It’s like we’ve been right in there next to them, fighting for that person. Then when we find out they don’t make it, that’s tough sometimes,” added Legvold. “We’re battling death. I know it sounds really funny, but at the time that’s exactly how it feels.”

Legvold says it often feels as though she’s right there with the person giving lifesaving measures. “I’ve heard people in here counting compressions as they are doing them.”

Legvold would and has recommended her profession to others. “I have referred friends on. My son dispatches for Des Moines PD. Once you start it, it gets into your blood.”

Greatbatch would also encourage others to become a dispatcher. “It’s very rewarding. It’s scary at first. I know when I first walked in and seen all the screens and everything that’s going on, it was overwhelming.”

You can follow Mahaska County 911 Communications on Facebook HERE.

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Posted by on Apr 14 2018. Filed under Local News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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