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State looks at making 911 dispatch a regional operation

An emergency dispatcher uses at least two and sometimes three computer screens, layering several software programs over each other to retrieve relevant information and take preliminary reports. (Sarah Smith/Enterprise)

PARK RAPIDS -- The 911 dispatch center is the lifeblood of emergency operations in Hubbard County, so when Sheriff Frank Homer announced last week the state is funding studies to determine whether it should move toward regional dispatch centers, the concept got a cool reception.

Two Hubbard County commissioners are former road officers, one a state trooper and the other a deputy. Dick Devine and Cal Johannsen offered first-hand observations on the importance of having local dispatchers familiar with a region guide cops out on the roads.

As state government tries to consolidate operations throughout law enforcement, whether it's regional courts or dispatch centers, counties are struggling with the idea of losing important and accessible emergency and legal services. There's scant evidence such consolidations will chink away at Minnesota's projected $5 billion shortfall, Legislative committees are finding.

"If it's not a money saver it's not worth doing," Johannsen maintained at the Dec. 16 county board meeting.

Devine recalled stories of being involved in a high-speed pursuit on foreign turf aiding a county he was only marginally familiar with.

"What do you do in the middle of a chase when the dispatcher (in another region) doesn't have the slightest idea where you are?" he asked. "I depended many times on the sheriff (and county dispatch center) to tell me where the curves in the road were. To lose that is scary."

But having local dispatchers who know the people, roads and homes of the area is invaluable, Homer said in a separate interview recently.

As towns such as Akeley and Nevis cut back their police forces county deputies are stretched thinner in their coverage, Homer said.

"What we have to rely on a lot is dispatch," he said. "They're the ones taking the calls and they can get a feel on the seriousness of one call versus another. And basically they instruct the deputy of what we have and the deputy makes a decision from there."

Homer said particularly with Akeley, which laid off two part-time officers and cut its police chief's hours to half time, the department would feel those absences.

"It'll add a little bit of extra stress to the call load and the response but the thing about Akeley, if there's a call that appears to be serious in nature, we would generally be headed there anyway if the officer would need assistance," Homer said.

The dispatch center, more formally known as the Public Safety Answering Point, or PSAP, has been undergoing a steady transition since June 6, 2008, when the lone dispatcher on duty was instantly swamped with hundreds of tornado emergency calls.

A quick tour of the dispatch center will alert any visitor that it's not an easy job, especially under trying circumstances.

Dispatchers are surrounded by computer screens, keyboards, buttons, knobs, switches on walls and two types of radio systems. Then there's the constantly ringing phones, police radio dispatches and background noise.

Dispatchers must not only have an immense capacity for patience and multi-tasking, but they also must have serious technological skills. One screen pinpoints callers, another maps the county and fringe areas. Dispatchers often layer their screens to retrieve and input the information crucial to fielding an emergency call.

What the public didn't know on June 6 was that the primary dispatch-recording machine was dying as calls flooded in.

Since then the county board voted to purchase more a reliable communication and recording system that has the potential to record all phone calls, all radio traffic and all the phones in the law enforcement building if necessary.

The new software allows emergency dispatchers to find people more easily. But it's also layered on top of other modes of technology dispatchers routinely use.

"There's an Internet paging system to contact officers in the field," dispatch administrator Sherri Klasen said in 2008. "They (officers) get notice on their pagers. Anyone in the system carries a pager."

It's not a job for the faint of heart. "One's blood pressure jumps up as soon as a 911 call goes through," Klasen said. Emergency calls come in, triggering a siren and red flashing lights in the dispatch center.

But it's the experience and knowledge of the area the county board and sheriff don't want to lose.

Dispatchers, like other emergency personnel, live here, shop here, pay taxes here and know the region, not just the terrain but the people as well.

Devine reiterated that importance as he recalled being dispatched from state patrol regional centers in his road days.

"They can't tell you where the road curves, what's coming up next," he said. "They know the main highways but that's about it."

The board said it would take a lot of convincing to persuade them someone in Brainerd, Grand Rapids or Duluth could do a better job than the local dispatchers.

"Are we doing a bad job now?" board chair Lyle Robinson asked rhetorically.

The answer was a unanimous nodding of the heads - no.