By Starrla Cray
WRIGHT COUNTY, MN “Wright County 911. Do you have an emergency?”
Jeremy Baker deals with life and death situations every day.
As a communications officer at the dispatch center in Buffalo, Baker and his co-workers answer all the 911 calls in Wright County.
They have to be ready to dispatch police, fire, or ambulance services at a moment’s notice.
“There’s a phrase we use in public safety: Seconds save lives,” Baker said.
In 20 years, the population in Wright County has increased from under 70,000 to more than 110,000 residents, and the sheriff’s department has grown as well.
The jail and entire sheriff’s department will move to a newly constructed building (north of the public works building along Highway 25) in spring of 2009. About $50 million was spent on the project, which includes an updated dispatch center. Everything will be electronic, with five computer screens for each dispatcher.
In her 17 years as a communications officer, Judy Brown has seen many changes in the way 911 calls are handled.
“When I first started, we didn’t have computers,” she said. “We had two phones. When the red phone rang, that was 911.” Whenever someone called, dispatchers had to write everything in a notebook and then send for help, if needed. Later, they recorded the information on a typewriter.
“Every single report had four carbons,” she said. Now, everything that’s said on police radios and phone calls is automatically recorded and categorized by date and time.
“No one used addresses and there was no caller ID,” Brown said. “We went by landmarks and distances from landmarks.”
Back then, there were three squad cars for the entire county. Currently, 20 to 30 cars are out at any given time, Brown said.
“It’s just amazing where it’s come in such a short amount of time,” Baker commented. “And now we’re going to advance even further.”
Technological advancements continue to make 911 dispatches more efficient. Through computer aided dispatch, the phone number and location of the call automatically show up on a screen. This automatic number information and automatic location information helps dispatchers know where to send help.
“If you call from a cell phone, automatic number information will show up most of the time,” Wright County Sgt. Annette Habisch said. “Location doesn’t always come up, but it might.”
When calling 911, it is important to stay on the phone to verify the information. This will not slow down the time it takes for help to arrive.
“While one dispatcher is on the phone talking, another is usually listening in, sending a squad car to your location,” Habisch said.
If someone accidentally calls 911, Baker said the person should stay on the line and let the dispatch officer know.
“A lot of people misdial and hang up,” he said. “Then we have to call back, and it is time consuming.”
The Wright County dispatch center handles both emergency and non-emergency calls, sending service for about 150 to 200 calls per day.
“We dispatch for 18 townships and 16 cities,” Baker said.
The types of calls vary depending on the season and time of day. Summer is usually busier, Baker said. “We get more calls because there are summer storms, kids are home from school, and more people are out and about.”
In the morning, they frequently get calls about things that happened the night before, such as damaged property.
“We also get quite a few medicals,” Baker said. Traffic complaints are common with the morning commute.
Baker worked nights for about three years. “The volume of calls is less, but the severity is often greater,” he said. The quietest time is between 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. “There are a lot more of the alcohol-related calls, domestic-type calls, assaults, fights, and home-security alarms. However, well over 90 percent of our home-security alerts are false alarms.”
For the hearing-impaired, a telecommunications relay service called Minnesota Relay can communicate emergency calls. A text telephone, called a TTY, is used for text communication through the telephone line. When a person calls using a TTY, dispatchers can correspond with the caller by typing on their computer screen.
If there is a language barrier, Wright County uses a language line, which is staffed 24/7. A translator will assist with the call in the appropriate language.
At least two dispatchers are on duty at all times. Baker said being able to react quickly and adapt to what is happening is crucial for the job.
“You just never know when an emergency’s going to happen,” he said. “You have to be able to shift gears quickly.”