Posted on Friday, June 19, 2015Blog written by Rob Swenson
Handling emergency calls can present life-or-death tests of a person’s ability to communicate quickly and effectively. Not everyone can handle the multitasking associated with being a 911 dispatcher, says Jesseca Mundahl, deputy director of Metro Communications in Sioux Falls.
“No one calls 911 because they’re having a good day. We’re their first contact on the worst day of their lives. And we do that all day long,” Mundahl says.
Becoming a state-certified dispatcher in Sioux Falls requires about five months of training and covers a variety of work, she says. A dispatcher might need to tell someone how to administer CPR on a person who is not breathing, for example, or help a nervous father deliver his wife’s baby.
People across the state who report emergencies will be able to text as well as send video information to dispatch centers.
In addition to fielding emergency phone calls from the public, 911 dispatchers maintain radio contact with front-line protectors such as police officers so that assistance can be dispatched to them when needed.
“Dispatching is very dynamic. You don’t know what you’ll get on the other end of the line. You have to be prepared to respond,” Mundahl says.
APCO International, one of the trade organizations that represents public safety communicators, is working with the U.S. Department of Labor to change the legal designation of 911 workers from “clerical” to “protective services,” a category that also covers police officers and firefighters.
Getting change finalized might take a couple of years because of listing requirements, according to APCO, which stands for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials. The seemingly appropriate change could help recognize emergency communicators as public safety professionals, not people who just answer phone calls and relay messages.
Mundahl says she and her colleagues support the efforts of APCO to reclassify 911 workers. They also support NENA, another trade group. NENA stands for the National Emergency Numbers Association. The organization promotes improved 911 communications through means such as advances in technology and training programs.
South Dakota is taking a significant step in improving its 911 emergency communications network right now.
SDN Communications of Sioux Falls is helping TeleCommunications Systems Inc. of Annapolis, Md. install a Next Generation 911 system across the state. In a couple of years or so, people across the state who report emergencies will be able to text as well as send video information to dispatch centers.
Pennington County 911 in Rapid City was the first to receive new communications equipment. Centers in Brookings, Mitchell and Pierre are next. Work on updating Sioux Falls’ equipment is scheduled to take place in August. However, features such as texting on 911 will not become available locally until the entire state network is more advanced, Mundahl says.
“We’re just at the beginning of this project, from a state perspective,” says Ted Rufledt Jr., who chairs the South Dakota State 911 Coordination Board. “We’re moving along good, and I expect it to continue going well.”
Rufledt is also the deputy director of Pennington County 911 and the president of the Dakotas chapter of NENA.
The Pennington County center recently moved into a new dispatch center, and the new phone system is working well, Rufledt says. After phone systems in 29 centers have been upgraded, project workers will replace old cooper lines and tie all of the centers into SDN’s broadband network. That’s when Next Gen technology features should become available.
In the meantime, people in Sioux Falls and Minnehaha County who report emergencies probably will not notice any difference in reporting emergencies or in how law enforcement officers, firefighters and other emergency personnel respond.
Metro Communications in Sioux Falls handles emergency communications for Minnehaha County, Sioux Falls and the town of Brandon, which like Sioux Falls has its own police department. The agency, which is staffed around the clock, employs 47 people, including 34 communications officers and advanced communications officers. Seven others serve as shift supervisors.
The local agency works closely with other communications centers and respects the work they do. During National Telecommunications Safety Week, which was observed in April, workers in Metro Communications prepared gift bags for their colleagues at Lincoln County Communications in Canton. They also sent a big cookie to workers at the 211 information center in Sioux Falls.
Metro Communications just wanted to express appreciation to colleagues and pay some respect forward, Mundahl says.
What a nice and inspirational thing to do.
The agency’s gesture is a reminder that those who toil anonymously in the background to keep society safer often have to generate appreciation among themselves. The next time you meet a dispatcher, you might want to say “thank you.”
SDN appreciates their work. The company also is proud of the work it is doing to help make state’s 911 network better.