Butch Shockey was the first person to respond to a gas leak at a church at about 10 a.m. Tuesday.
Another dispatcher answered the 911 call and then transferred it to Shockey, a 911 dispatcher with 31 years of experience. He took down information about how many people were at the building at the time and what had happened to cause the leak before giving instructions on how to stay safe and sending fire engines to the scene.
He then called to notify the gas company, simultaneously answering firefighters’ questions from the scene that came over the radio while he was on the phone. Shockey is one of four dispatchers seated at a row of consoles at the Howard County Sheriff Department’s 911 Communications Center. His hands move automatically between the three mice next to his keyboard, navigating between six computer screens to enter and monitor information about the calls coming in and agencies dispatched to address them.
Separated by a partition from Shockey and Steve Droke on the city side, Phyllis Harrison and Roger Stewart dispatch for Howard County sheriff deputies, volunteer township fire departments and EMS. Combined, the four dispatchers have 73 years of experience addressing Howard County’s emergencies.
“It does require a different person to sit and do this,” Shockey said, noting that dispatchers need to make decisions quickly. “It’s a lot on one plate. Just because I had six pieces of equipment at a gas leak doesn’t excuse me from answering my calls. This gives a new meaning to multi-tasking.”
Recently, Howard County’s 911 Communications Center has come under criticism from the Kokomo Police Department and Kokomo Fire Department for ongoing errors made by dispatchers. The death of Kokomo resident Tammy Ford on July 1 brought the issues to the public’s attention. In that case, a dispatcher sent first responders to the wrong address after Ford called 911 saying she was having difficulty breathing.
The dispatchers don’t want to minimize Ford’s death, and they realize the grave consequences that can result from any error on their part. But they also feel many of the people critiquing them don’t understand the hectic, high-stress environment in which they work.
“All of the things that can go bad, you’re not going to be able to do away with all of it,” said Stewart, who is set to retire next month after 28 years as a 911 dispatcher following a nine-month stint as a KPD officer. “You just have to deal with it.”
Shockey thinks the number of successful responses dispatchers facilitate shouldn’t be overshadowed by the errors.
“A small group of people are being held to an extremely high standard,” he said.
BIG HEART, THICK SKIN
While Shockey was taking that call about the gas leak, Droke looked up a Vehicle Identification Number for a police officer on a traffic stop. Of the six screens at each dispatcher’s console, one is dedicated to license plate and VIN searches; one to warrant searches; one to the phone system, which includes eight 911 lines; one screen shows the Computer Aided Dispatch system where details about incoming calls are entered and recommendations on the personnel and vehicles to send to the scene are made; one shows a map that zeros in on the location of an incoming call; and another screen shows the radio system and the channels to which a dispatcher is connected.
“When it comes to the police side, my main priority is where the officers are and their calls,” Droke said. “There’s a lot that goes on. It’s not just one call at a time. … We do a lot behind the scenes that people don’t see.”
The radio traffic is loud as Droke looks up the VIN, and the officer ends up calling him back on a non-emergency line to have him look up another VIN because the number on the vehicle and the number on the title didn’t match. Droke has worked in the dispatch center for 12 years, starting out as a city employee until the city and county dispatch centers merged in 2011 and the county started overseeing the entire operation. Prior to that, he was an emergency medical technician in Carroll County and a volunteer with the Harrison Township fire department.
There is maybe a two-minute lull, and then Shockey gets another 911 call – this time a woman calling about an altercation that took place outside her place of employment with a man who works at another nearby establishment. The woman starts by saying she’s not in a “dire emergency,” gives her name and calmly explains the situation to Shockey. He asks if the man is still there and requests that she call back on a non-emergency line, but then the woman sees the man outside and leaves the phone to go confront him.
Dispatchers are required to call back 911 hang ups, and this time the woman is yelling when she comes on the phone. Shockey tries multiple times to interject to tell he can send an officer and to stay inside her building, but the woman doesn’t pause in her tirade about the man she feels is harassing her.
In the meantime, Droke is answering questions from two officers – one who radioed asking for information on an abandoned vehicle and another who called to ask Droke to look up a man’s name and alias to see if he had any outstanding warrants. Shockey, still on the 911 call a couple of minutes later, finally yells, “How about you let me finish a sentence?”
“That’s a nice way to treat a victim,” the woman says and hangs up.
Being rude to callers was one complaint that KPD recorded in inter-department emails obtained by the Kokomo Tribune concerning problems with dispatch. But in this case, the woman didn’t listen until Shockey spoke forcefully.
“There’s some calls where they’re not going to let you take control – and that’s my job, to take control of the call and control of the situation until the police get there,” Shockey said.
The call volume and radio traffic varies throughout the morning. There is no way to predict what the busy times will be, Droke says, but typically the afternoon and midnight shifts are more hectic than the day shift.
“The city’s always been busier,” he added. “With the city police, you run between nine and 15 cops a day. Up here, you really can’t predict when you’re going to be busy.”
Four dispatchers usually work the day shift, and five or six may work the later shifts. Dispatchers typically work eight-hour shifts – four days on and two days off – and the only break they get is to step away to use the restroom. They cover for each other whenever someone isn’t at his or her console, and they eat meals at their desks between calls.
'You can only do so much'
Dispatchers have talked people out of suicide attempts, de-escalated domestic violence situations, negotiated between officers and callers, gathered details on shootings and fatal accidents and heard people take their final breath.
“When you’re listening to somebody die, that sticks with you,” said Harrison, who has 15 years of experience as a 911 dispatcher. “You can only do so much over the phone.
“After a while you learn to leave it here. But then you’ll get one [call] that really bothers you and you’ll take that home,” she added. “I don’t think everybody could do it. You’ve got to have a big heart but be thick-skinned. You’ve got to stay together. It’s OK if you fall apart after [a call], but not during.”
Some days Harrison will just lie down for 20 minutes in complete silence when she gets home to decompress from the constant noise of her shift.
At 11:36 a.m., she answers a 911 call saying a man may be having a heart attack. The phone is cutting out at first, but Harrison gets their location, asks whether the man is breathing and if he’s sitting up. She gets the caller’s name and then enters all the information in CAD, sighing in frustration when the program takes a second to save the file.
Within three minutes, Harrison is dispatching Community Howard Regional Health medics to the scene, and then she sends the Greentown ambulance too. She answers another 911 call, and Stewart checks the status of the ambulance Harrison had requested for the potential heart attack victim. At the same time, he answers a non-emergency call asking him to look up vehicle information. Shockey can be heard on the other side of the partition giving someone instructions on how to begin CPR, asking the caller to be sure the person is not breathing before attempting it. He stayed on the line until the ambulance arrived.
As soon as Stewart hangs up from the looking up the vehicle information, another 911 call comes in and he answers it. Harrison takes it over and starts typing a description of the call into CAD as she finishes up her directions to the caller to wait for the EMTs.
The Greentown ambulance had arrived on scene with the heart attack victim at 11:42 a.m., and before the Community Howard medics got there at 11:53 a.m., Harrison hears from one of the Greentown EMTs over the radio. The signal is breaking up, but she makes out the word “manpower.” “They need more than the medics?” she asks.
Harrison dispatches the Greentown fire engine to help but didn’t get a response right away; the volunteer department is not staffed at all times. Three minutes later Stewart advises her to “tone out” and call again for the fire engine.
“It’s only been three minutes but it feels like it’s been longer,” Harrison says. “That’s not even my grandpa and it feels like a long time.”
She checks in at the scene again a few minutes later, and the EMTs say they were able to lift the man once the Community Howard medics arrived so they don’t need additional assistance anymore.
“You’ve got to think quick on your feet. You’ve got to be fast at what you do,” Stewart said, adding it’s important to take every call seriously, even if the dispatcher doesn’t think it’s truly an emergency. “It’s a combination of things that are hard. You’re dealing with these things every day. You try to not become callous in it.”
Howard County’s 911 Communications Center employs 19 dispatchers, three supervisors, an assistant director and director to oversee the operations. The center’s $1.6 million annual budget is made up of 911 fees paid by residents on their phone bills, which cover the cost of equipment and employee benefits, and money from the county’s general fund pays for salaries and other expenses.
The city stopped contributing funds to the dispatch center in 2014, lowering its tax levy so the county could increase its tax levy in order to generate more funds for the dispatch center.
Dispatchers complete 480 hours of training at a console in addition to learning the streets, common areas and businesses in Howard County. They also ride along with officers or EMTs. It takes about four months for dispatchers to become certified, said Gary Bates, director of the Howard County 911 Communications Center.
“When I first started 12 years ago, I thought I knew every road in Kokomo,” said Droke, who has lived in Kokomo his whole life. “No, that’s not true. … There were roads I’d never heard of.”
The starting salary for a dispatcher is $32,979 a year, with a $1,000 a year bonus for those who work the afternoon and midnight shifts. Supervisors make $35,300 a year. That higher salary for the afternoon and midnight shifts, plus two additional dispatching positions, were just added this year.
Dispatchers rotate between working the city or county side of the center, and there are slight variations in some procedures depending on the entity with which they are working. Howard County’s dispatch center communicates with the Kokomo Police Department, Kokomo Fire Department, Howard County Sheriff’s Department, Greentown Police Department, Russiaville Police Department, occasionally the Indiana State Police and Department of Natural Resources, seven volunteer fire departments that each have their own ambulance service from the townships in Howard County, EMS from two hospitals, Howard County’s Emergency Management Agency, the coroner, and the humane society in cases where animal control is needed – in addition to handling 911 calls.
Of the more than 222,000 calls the center fielded in 2014, a little more than 39 percent were non-emergency calls made to the city. When KPD’s administrative offices are closed – which includes weekends and after 4 p.m. on weekdays – incoming calls are forwarded to the dispatch center. Those calls could include anything from requesting accident reports to questions about firing a gun within city limits.
911 calls made up 27.3 percent of the dispatch center’s 2014 call volume, the county’s non-emergency calls accounted for 16.4 percent and direct lines to dispatch from other entities like major local employers and the hospitals made up about 10.5 percent of the calls. Miscellaneous other types of calls account for 3.5 percent of the total call volume.
CHANGING WITH THE TIMES
Howard County’s day shift dispatchers have seen changes in the world of emergency communications throughout their decades on the job, partly because of advances in technology.
The growing popularity of cell phones means it’s especially important for dispatchers to get an address from 911 callers.
“With 911 calls, if it’s a cell phone it hits to the nearest tower. If it’s a landline, it plots to the address,” Droke said. “The most important thing with a 911 call is we need to know where you’re at.”
Also, dispatchers are more likely to get numerous calls for the same accident from people driving by the scene and calling in on their cell phones. They have to assess which callers have details on the accident and which are calling just to say they saw it while driving by.
In 2011, the City of Kokomo dispatch and Howard County dispatch services consolidated – a move that was projected to save $470,000 a year for the city and $150,000 a year for the county. The transition to operating as one dispatch center has taken time as differences in procedures are gradually standardized.
“Some aspects of it were more difficult, but others it was a smooth transition,” Stewart said. “The job’s basically the same with a few exceptions.”
Droke, Shockey, Harrison and Stewart all worked for the city before the merger, and Harrison said becoming county employees created a separation between them and KPD.
Another change for the 911 Communications Center came in December when the center switched to a new CAD system that connects wirelessly with a server in Indianapolis. At first there were issues connecting to the server and the system would often be in disconnect mode, which made it more difficult for dispatchers to send officers from the right stations and districts.
“It hasn’t been the easiest. It’s been a bit of a struggle, but it gets better as the days go on,” Droke said. “They’re really working on it to keep it up and running for us.”
Converting data to the new system also resulted in warrants that had been served since last December being re-entered as active, which led to some illegitimate arrests – another issue KPD brought up. Now dispatchers double check a paper filing system to confirm whether the warrant is actually active after looking it up digitally.