By Sue Moore
“Hold on, help is on the way,” Marie Gleesing told a recent caller to the 911 consolidated dispatch center. They’re the most welcome words anyone wants to hear when they dial 911, according to Jeff Troyer, the center’s executive director.
“When people are calling us, nothing good is happening,” Troyer said. “Most people don’t know where their call is going and they don’t care. They just want help. Our call takers and dispatchers aren’t the ones showing up on the scene, so they never get seen by the public. We have huge success stories but we don’t collect testimonials from our callers.”
“The dispatchers are the unsung heroes of the 911 system,” Brady Township Supervisor Tracy Locey told the South Kalamazoo County Fire Authority board at its September meeting. “They are pulling the major load [for all of us]. They undergo intensive training and experience a lot of stress in their job.” Locey serves as a member of the 911 finance committee.
There are 54 available positions for call takers and dispatchers in the new center with just 40 slots filled to date, Troyer said. New employees on average have 16 weeks of training before they‘re allowed to work as a call taker on their own. Thirty-four dispatch center staff were hired from several of the previous call centers into the new consolidated operation. One of the most integral positions is Troyer’s deputy director, Victoria Rose from Vicksburg, who was his first hire once it was decided to open a new operation. She had been a supervisor of the Portage dispatch center. “We are like salt and pepper but I didn’t want a yes person as my deputy; we balance each other out,” Troyer said.
The need for a consolidated dispatch had been clear to top appointed and elected officials, according to Troyer. Five entities came together in 2014 to sign an inter-local agreement: Kalamazoo City, Kalamazoo County, Kalamazoo Township, Portage City and Western Michigan University. All operated their own call centers before the consolidation. The biggest question became how to fund the necessary equipment and staff for a consolidated operation that Troyer was hired to head in 2016.
A 911 surcharge proposal to fund annual estimated costs of $5.3 million was defeated by county voters in May, 2017. After that the five governments went back to the drawing board. After many meetings, all agreed that the 911 consolidated dispatch center could be funded temporarily by each unit contributing funds based on a mixed formula of current 911 spending and population served by each. That helped to kick-start the new and technologically advanced call center.
Some savings are expected eventually for the cities and county. That’s raised an issue with some county residents, who contended that the local governments would just find another way to spend the freed up dollars if the surcharge proposal passed successfully. Now the participating units of government have about two more years to figure out the best way to fund the new center for the long term.
Board members have authorized a survey of the public to decide which of two options would be preferable: a millage proposal or an increase to the existing 911 surcharge applied to each phone. Both have pros and cons with the voters, Troyer said. The board consists mostly of public safety officers and top appointed and elected officials.
Meanwhile, calls are being answered by the people who work 8- and 12-hour shifts, 80 hours over a two-week period, with a full benefit package. Their screens show the approximate location of the call coming in, the location of every police car out on the road and aerial maps of all the streets in the county. They monitor a number of different radio channels on their multiple screens.
“We are starting to hit our stride,” reported Troyer. “Since the cut-over in October 2018, there have been some glitches while we integrated the staff to new processes and all-new systems. Everybody reacts a bit differently to a call, with those involving young kids being the worst ones for our call takers and dispatchers to deal with after the fact. Our reaction times for the most significant events involving multi-agency responses are down to 30-60 seconds. Now it’s two steps forward and only one back.”
“We have the potential to save lives with all of the public safety system linked together now. It is an important common denominator for EMS and the countywide system,” Dr. William Fales said. He is the Kalamazoo County Emergency Medicine Department chief.