Illuminated by the bluish glow of a computer screen, the sharp eyes of 30-year veteran dispatcher Jan Jourdan dart from one monitor to the next, locating nearest personnel, directing services and gathering information from the caller, all while keeping an almost eery calm.
For three decades, she’s been the serene voice on the other line for panicked callers, guiding them through situations both dire and minor.
Her crew of four other dispatchers has more than 80 years of experience between them.
They work together. Using hand gestures and often hollering information across the room, they are a cohesive unit, teaming up to handle the busy times of emergency call after call.
“We all have to work together, that’s the name of the game,” Jourdan said.
Anytime of day the calls can begin to pour in, some for police but many for medical response.
A typical day heats up
Last Thursday morning started off slow, but then the three dispatchers on duty began to be flooded with calls.
First, it was a terminal patient whose husband was transporting her to the emergency room before getting stuck in a snowdrift as his wife’s temperature dipped to 90 degrees.
Then came a call about a man in full cardiac arrest, with dispatcher Michelle Rose telling the caller to have her husband continue to do press compressions.
Three more calls in the next 15 minutes all required emergency medical response.
The team went into full action. Jourdan and Rose, along with fellow dispatcher Karisa Bailey, began relaying information back and forth, coordinating where available ambulances were and which ones were closer to which calls.
“Teamwork is the No. 1 thing you have to have,” said Rose, who has 18 years of experience dispatching. “If you don’t have teamwork you don’t have a good dispatch center. You have to be able to talk and work with each other.”
Within minutes, medical response was heading to each of the five locations in Montcalm County, the road commission accompanying one for clearing of a roadway.
Then on to the next task. Dispatchers continuously track where personnel are and their status on scene. They man five different computers, each of them with different purposes.
To the far left, the 911 call programs. As the call comes in, dispatchers can see the address of the landline. If it’s a cellphone, the can track its exact location within 10 seconds.
Next to that is a screen for each of the county’s radio systems: fire, police, emergency medical services and more. Directly in front of the dispatcher is a data screen, where dispatchers enter the “five Ws” of the call, which is sent directly to the unit dedicated to that run.
The two screens on the right are designated for status of each unit out on a call and a map of the county which displays the exact location of the caller.
“There is so much to learn when you’re dispatching,” Jourdan said.
So experience is important.
Dispatchers rely on each other
Montcalm County Central Dispatch Director Tim Scott said there are more than 200 years of experience among the center’s 12 dispatchers and four supervisors.
“There are two reasons that is important. One, they build a very good rapport with officers, EMS and firefighters. It makes it much easier to dispatch and support them when you know them and how they react,” he said. “Two, they know the county. When you live in the county you know how to get them from Point A to Point B for wherever an officer is.”
Most live here in the county and the shifts spend 12 hours together in the small dispatch room. Needless to say, they bond.
“They work very well together and support each other in there and share a lot of information,” Scott said.
They use those built relationships as a vice for dealing with the severity of some of the calls, which can take a toll, especially when they involve children.
“I handle the stress through the people, talking about it or venting,” Rose said.
Some of most stressful situations were three children who fell through the ice during a winter in the early 1990s, two of whom died, and a home delivery turned emergency when one of the twins wasn’t breathing and the other breached.
It’s often those stories that remain in the minds of the veteran dispatchers.
“The ones that stick with you are the ones you shouldn’t remember,” Jourdan said.
Good outweighs the bad
But the bad is often offset by the good. The times lives are saved, or tragedies averted.
“It’s rewarding to help people,” Rose said.
In fact, that’s why they do it.
“It’s nice knowing you take their call and give them the help they need,” Bailey added.
It is that reason they love their work. All day, every day, the center is staffed. There are few breaks and the hours can be long. But each day they show up, put the headset over their ears and get to work.
“We’re here 24/7 and we’re here to serve,” Jourdan said.