Behind several metal doors, a spiral staircase leads up into a darkened room. Desks are surrounded by multiple computer monitors giving off a bluish glow.
Despite the full moon that’s about to rise, it’s quieter than usual at the Brown County Law Enforcement Center.
Then, a chorus of ringtones goes off. Dispatcher Shellie Landry picks up the line.
“Brown County 911.”
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The caller says his granddaughter had pop-it fireworks thrown at her face. He’s requesting an ambulance to check her out.
“Is she able to see? OK. Is she complaining of any kind of burning around her eyes? OK. I’ll get an officer and EMS unit up there. How old is she? Do you know who the kids were that threw them? OK.”
An officer radios back to confirm the address; he is off by a couple numbers. Landry sends him in the right direction.
A few minutes later, another deputy in a different part of the county radios in asking dispatch to check out a license plate on a truck. Landry lets him know that person is not wanted by the police.
Landry has been a dispatcher in Brown County for five years. She enjoys being the lifeline for the deputies and the people of Brown County.
It also was a field she was familiar with. Her father retired as a dispatcher from the Department of Natural Resources.
“Even if it’s, ‘What’s the number for the courthouse?’ Or, ‘I need an ambulance,’ It’s never knowing what’s going to happen. It’s not that I’m going to work and doing the same thing I did yesterday,” she said.
Someone is on duty in the Brown County Sheriff’s Department’s dispatch center 24 hours day, 365 days a year — preferably two people.
It’s a stressful job.
“There are not many jobs where you have to get it right 100 percent of the time or somebody could die,” Sheriff Scott Southerland said.
Dispatchers often miss out on weekends and holidays with families. They make about $32,000 per year before taxes. The hours and the stress lead to turnover.
“It reaches a point where they think, ‘This is not worth it,’” Southerland said.
In the past 18 months, the sheriff’s department has had to hire three new dispatchers out of the eight, not including Supervisor Kay Followell.
In April, there were 167 hours when one dispatcher was covering the phones alone, Southerland said.
Making a 24-hour schedule that doesn’t put any dispatcher over 40 hours of work in one week is a never-ending challenge.
The sheriff has been talking with county council members about getting more money to pay part-time dispatchers as needed, like when a four-hour shift needs to be filled in the middle of the week.
First on scene
Dispatchers are a person’s first contact on possibly the worst day of their life.
“We get these callers where they are so upset, screaming and crying. You can’t even understand what they’re saying,” said Erikka Thompson.
Thompson has only worked in Brown County for three months, but she came with nine years’ dispatch experience from Bartholomew County.
Calls involving kids are the worst, she said.
When she was working in Bartholomew County, she received a call about a young boy who rode his ATV into the road, was struck by a motorcycle and died at the scene. A witness was the first person to call 911.
The woman had a medical background and was able to relay all the information Thompson needed to emergency responders.
“I remember her saying, ‘I just need to take a minute. I need a minute to myself.’ I said, ‘I’ve already got them en route. You do what you need to do.’ She breaks down on the phone with me. I actually muted the call … It just does something to you, because you’re like, ‘If this was my child,’” Thompson said.
“I remember telling her, ‘This is probably the hardest thing you’re ever going to have to do in your life, and you did awesome. … ‘You did everything you could do.’”
Dispatchers are charged with not only radioing out the correct emergency responders to the scene, but also keeping the caller calm.
Landry remembers talking with a woman who returned home from work to find her sick husband had died in their bed.
“That is one that kind of sticks out. Just telling her, ‘Go sit in the hallway.’ She kept saying, ‘I can’t look at him, I can’t be there.’ So you just stay on the line with them … anything you can say to either comfort them or try and take their mind off of it for a few moments.”
They aren’t all life-threatening calls. Once, Landry answered a 911 call from an emotionally challenged man who was arguing with his girlfriend over whose turn it was to have the TV remote.
“They weren’t mad at each other; they weren’t fighting. They just decided that since they couldn’t decide whose turn it was, they were going to go ask somebody else. They called 911, settled it, done,” Landry said.
When the next phone rings, Thompson knows who’s on the other line. It’s one of the regulars. Tonight’s question is about the possibility of severe storms.
“He just needs that reassurance that everything is going to be OK and that he’ll be fine,” Landry said.
When police officers are on a call that can be hazardous, like a traffic stop, serving a warrant or investigating a disabled vehicle, every three minutes, dispatchers check in on them until the officer says they’re OK.
“If you’re out there on the road dealing with these people, you know you’re OK, but the dispatcher doesn’t,” Southerland said. “It’s very stressful.”
Dispatchers also serve as backup for jail staff. Covered in windows, the dispatch center is in the middle of the jail, with parts of it overlooking inmates in the cell blocks. Dispatchers also have monitors they can use to watch what is going on in the jail as needed, if the jail staff is shorthanded.
When the phones start ringing, dispatchers snap to attention.
“You may have two dispatchers who are answering 16 different people, whether it’s on 911 or whether it’s on a radio,” Landry said. “You just go into dispatch mode. You just do it.”
“Afterwards, you go back and, ‘Whew, I’m good.”
“You sit there for a few minutes and go, ‘Man, are we going to do anything?’” Thompson added.
Officers also rely on dispatchers for not-so-important information.
One deputy asked her what county Brazil, Indiana, was in. “He was sitting in the parking lot and I was like, ‘Uh, well, let me Google that for you,'” Thompson said.
Some deputies will call and ask where a storm is. “I don’t know, but let me look at the radar,” Thompson said. “I think it’s such a common practice for them to ask us.”
But if you’re going to call 911, dispatchers ask that you first ask yourself, “Is this life-threatening?”
“Nothing ticks you off more than either answering it and hearing, ‘Well, I really don’t have an emergency’ or ‘I have a lockout.’ Then you try to be nice about it, but you’re tying up a 911 line for a lockout or for you wanting a phone number,” Thompson said.
At this point in the evening, the phones are quiet. Dispatchers have sent deputies and EMS to a scene and they’re dealing with family members who are fighting.
But don’t say “quiet” or “busy” in the dispatch center.
“Those are what we call bad words up here, because it’s like you always say, ‘Man, I can’t believe it’s quiet.’ Then you just jinxed yourself,” Landry said.
“We don’t get paid to sit here for 12 hours and be busy the whole time. We get paid to do our job when all hell breaks loose.”
How much training? Six to eight weeks to start. New dispatchers learn which units to send for which type of call and how to get the information emergency responders need to render help. Then, dispatchers train with other dispatchers and listen to tapes of calls made in Brown County. They also answer real calls while another dispatcher monitors what they say.
Tech tools: Dispatchers also learn the Indiana Data and Communications System, or IDACS, which allows dispatchers to look up people in a nationwide database to see history that could be important to officers, such as whether they are wanted or if their driver’s license is suspended.
More to learn: Every year, dispatchers go for some form of continuing education. Dispatcher Shellie Landry and a partner recently attended a Crisis Communication course where they learned what procedures to follow when dealing with a crisis such as a terrorist attack, an active shooter or a drowning. The instructor was from San Bernardino, California, and that department handled the 911 calls from the December 2015 shooting at the Inland Regional Center. “Now that we’ve heard those tapes of incidents like that, if we ever get that, it’s not a first for us, because we heard it,” Landry said.
SOPs: There are standard operating procedures for whom to call to certain types of emergencies, Landry said. “If someone calls in and says, ‘I can’t breathe and I am having a hard time breathing,’ immediately EMS and fire. … If it’s an ‘I fell out of bed, I just need some lift assist, I’m not hurt,’ we send EMS,” she said. But there are gray areas where it’s the dispatcher’s call on who gets toned out. Supervisor Kay Followell’s motto is, “When in doubt, send ’em out,” Landry said. “It’s easier to disregard someone than to get someone started 15 minutes later.”