Calming chaos: Multi-tasking important to emergency dispatchers

Amy Zeeb monitors seven computer screens of emergency services information at the 911 dispatch center in the Dickinson County Sheriff’s Office in Iron Mountain.  (Nikki Younk/Daily News Photos)

IRON MOUNTAIN — Back in the days before police automatically responded to every 911 call, dispatcher Amy Zeeb heard from a young boy who was trying to reach his mother.

It appeared at first to be an accidental contact — the child just wanted to speak to his mother because his father was sleeping. 

But Zeeb had a bad feeling, enough to send police. They found the father had left the boy beaten and bruised before passing out drunk.

“You just develop a sense for when something’s not right,” Zeeb said.

It’s this intuition, as well as common sense and the ability to multi-task and solve problems, that makes a good dispatcher, Zeeb and Dickinson County Emergency Services Deputy Director Pete Schlitt said.

Dickinson County Dispatcher Christine Erkkila, standing, listens in as her trainee, Morgan Mattord, answers a call at the 911 dispatch center in the Dickinson County Sheriff's Office in Iron Mountain. Statistics provided by Dickinson County Sheriff Scott Rutter show the dispatch center handled almost 3,800 911 calls and about 22,000 non-911 calls since the beginning of the year.  The monthly break-down for 911 calls and non-911 calls is 342 and 2,800 in January, 448 and 2,461 in February, 516 and 3,000 in March, 476 and 2,842 in April, 604 and 3,119 in May, 694 and 3,867 in June, and 719 and 3,616 in July.

In fact, Schlitt said it’s a certain personality type — more so than having the right education or training — that functions best in the often high-stress situations. 

Dickinson County dispatchers, who usually work only two at a time, dealt with hundreds of 911 calls from passersby and radio transmissions from firefighters and law enforcement during the May 20 fire at the EZ Stop Mobil gas station and Burger King in Iron Mountain. 

They have to pick up every emergency call, so they started to answer each one by asking if the call was in reference to the fire before quickly moving on.

In addition, dispatchers had to find time to look up cell phone numbers to call in extra volunteer firefighters who didn’t receive the radio transmission pages.

While all this was going on, they still had to answer unrelated 911 calls and take traffic stop information from police on patrol.

Prioritizing is necessary but not always easy, Dickinson County Undersheriff Scott Metras said.

Even a simple license plate check can potentially turn dangerous if arrest warrants come back on the driver, he pointed out.

Having a close connection between dispatchers also is key, Zeeb said, noting she and co-worker Christine Erkkila can “read each other’s minds.”

Although they may be handling separate calls, they still need to know what the other is doing. One might repeat exactly what a caller says, especially if weapons are involved, so the other can start notifying emergency responders.

People of all backgrounds come into the dispatch profession. Some already have experience in emergency services as a police officer, firefighter, paramedic or nurse, while others may decide on it as a first job.

Dickinson County now has six full-time and two part-time dispatchers, and got the county board in July to green-light another full-time position. Many of the full-time employees have been there for years, while the part-timers have a higher turnover rate, Schlitt said.

New Dickinson County dispatchers train for three months and then attend a week-long school downstate. 

“We start them out doing one thing, then two things, then three things and start putting the stress on,” Schlitt said. “If they can’t take it, they won’t survive in this job.”

It’s not uncommon for trainees to make it halfway through the training period and then get one 911 call that prompts them to resign, Metras said.

“You could be handling something like a traffic stop and the next call might be a choking baby, so you have to explain CPR over the phone and the baby might still die,” Metras said. “You wonder what you could have done different.”

Zeeb, who has been a dispatcher for more than 20 years, said some of her most difficult calls involved a child in distress, or people with mental health problems or who are suicidal.

“It’s rewarding to help people at a stressful time in their life,” Erkkila added. “But you can’t train dispatchers with what to do with their own stress.”

It also can be hard on dispatchers to spend a significant amount of time with a particular caller and then not know what happens to them after help arrives.

“Sometimes the officers will let you know how it turned out. Sometimes they can’t because it’s an ongoing investigation,” Zeeb explained.

In Dickinson County, people can contact 911 through a phone call or texting. Texting has proven beneficial in cases where people can’t talk — such as domestic violence — or when their cell phones are in rural areas that don’t have service for voice calls, Schlitt said.

Dispatchers also can text out to local emergency responders to advise them of impending events such as severe weather that may down trees and power lines.

Technology available at Dickinson County’s dispatch center allows dispatchers to monitor incidents not just within the county but throughout the Upper Peninsula.

Anyone who calls 911 with an emergency can help dispatchers do their jobs by giving the most important information as quickly and clearly as possible. 

If dispatchers know where the emergency is happening, they at least can begin sending help, Zeeb said. Of course, knowing other details, such as what, when and who are crucial as well, she said.

Emergency dispatchers are the first contact a caller has with emergency services, which sets the tone for their experience. If that contact doesn’t go well, it could create a dangerous situation for responding officers and paramedics, Metras noted.

“They’re like guardian angels for the public and law enforcement,” Metras said. “Nobody sees what they do and realizes the service they’re providing to their community.”

Nikki Younk can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 41, or