By Julie Ann Madden
Published Aug. 14, 2013
He was tired of commuting to work, paying nearly $4 per gallon of gasoline when he saw an ad for a Union County Communications Center dispatcher — a job just three blocks from his house.
“I thought how hard can that be,” laughed Jamie Campbell of Elk Point, S.D. “I thought all they did was answer the phones, too.”
“I had no idea,” said Campbell in a more serious tone of voice. “I had no clue.”
“We’re professionals,” said Campbell, who works the Midnight-to-8:00 shift on a rotation of 10 days on, four days off. “We’re all trained, certified and qualified.”
In South Dakota, once job applicants pass the dispatcher’s interview, they go through a state and Federal Bureau of Investigation background check. If they pass, then there is a minimum of three months of on-the-job training to complete.
“You do mundane tasks,” said Campbell, explaining “mundane” as filing, retrieving and canceling arrest warrants, printing out documents such as lists of upcoming court cases for police officers, and handling calls for barking dogs and suspicious vehicles.
After 90 days of on-the-job training, employees attend a two-week intense training at the state Police Academy.
“The tests are tough,” said Campbell. “You get one retake on a test. If you don’t pass a test, you’re done. If you get through that, then you get an additional three days of medical dispatch training to learn the Power Phone system.”
“As you become more trained, you graduate up to answering 911 calls,” said Campbell, explaining there is a specific protocol for handling the calls. It includes the dispatcher operating six different computer screens in the Communications Center – to access 911 callers’ information, addresses and maps of their addresses; check criminal records; and driver’s license/vehicle plate information; document which officers are on duty; and operate a radio system to page emergency service personnel with different frequencies for fire, ambulance and law enforcement and different 10 Codes and phonetic alphabets.
The final computer screen, and maybe the most important, is Power Phone, which has hundreds of emergency medical procedures which dispatchers use to talk callers through emergency medical procedures such as doing Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) and how to apply a tourniquet to stop bleeding.
“You have to be my hands but I will be your brain,” said Campbell. “I’m going to tell you the steps and how to do it.”
“All-in-all, by the time you’re completely done and actually working on your own, you have almost 4.5 months invested in training to do this job,” said Campbell, who has been on the Union County Communications Center staff for 2.5 years and continually takes dispatch recertification tests. “It’s not something you can just take somebody off the street, put them behind a console and say answer the phone.”
With Union County Commissioners trying to close the Communications Center, Campbell has heard several say, “You just answer phones. Let the deputies answer their own calls. There is no need for dispatchers.”
“Believe me, they don’t have time to answer phones,” said Campbell. “There are only six deputies — only a couple on duty at a time. They are out on patrol or out there doing what we’ve sent them to do.”
“We, dispatchers, take a lot of pride in what we do,” said Campbell, noting because of privacy laws, they don’t have anyone they can talk to about what happened on their shift at work.
“There are a lot of mornings that are so emotional, I come home and cry,” he said with tears in his eyes, holding the obituary of one he lost in the last couple weeks. “I hate losing people.”
After pausing to pull himself together, the retired military man said, “I will do the job 100 percent. I will cry later.”
He explained how a call may go. A person calls with an emergency — a possible heart attack, stroke or accident injuries. He gets the information he needs to dispatch who is needed at the location: a city cop, county deputy or both. Then ambulance, life-flight helicopter, or funeral home personnel. Then he spends time relaying messages between the caller, officers and emergency personnel. Sometimes it’s minutes, other times it’s hours of intense work.
Sometimes he’s the calm voice on the phone, keeping the person on the other end of the line from losing it — getting them through moments such as when drunk party goers were looking for a party in the wrong building and terrified a resident, “chain saw massacre scary movie terrified;” the grandmother watching her grandson who discovered her husband had died, or people lost in the country’s midnight dark of night when they took the wrong interstate exit.
And at the same time, answering other calls such as a motorist speeding more than 100 mph down Interstate 29 and another person in another town bent on committing suicide.
Or the non-emergency 911 calls: checking on people’s welfare, calling officers who haven’t checked in in a while at a traffic stop or domestic abuse incident; or receiving dog barking complaints, people wanting the time while calling on their cell phones, and verifying active arrest warrants for other county/state law enforcement agencies.
“It’s not like I’m doing one thing at a time,” said Campbell. “Is it always like that? No. It’s hours of boredom interrupted by minutes of sheer terror.”
“Some of it’s exciting — like TV,” said Campbell. “I’ve done two or three high speed chases and I’ve even done a slow-speed chase (like) O.J. Simpson.”
“Winter time sucks because you get the rollover accidents. You have to figure out where these people are on the interstate,” he said. “Cell phones are wonderful but cell phones work on towers. I can get a general location but I don’t know where you are.”
Land line phones give addresses when calling 911 – but the address may be incorrect if the caller has moved and the phone company hasn’t updated their system, he explained.
“We’re trained professionals,” said Campbell.
“My concern about closing this center or not funding this center is we, Union County dispatchers, live here,” said Campbell, noting they live in Beresford, Dakota Dunes, Elk Point and Jefferson. “We have a vested interest in these communities. This is our home.”
“I have my neighbors here but my friends are the cops,” said Campbell. “They are the people I work with every day. I know their families, what’s going on in their lives. So, I’m very conscious of the fact I’m sending my friends into harm’s way (such as chasing a suspect into a dark building).”
“I don’t want somebody who doesn’t have any idea where the hell Elk Point is trying to dispatch my ambulance to me if I’m laying here,” he said. “I’m almost 60 years old and it’s not going to be much longer before I need help.”
“We go by landmarks out here,” said Campbell. “Somebody in some other county isn’t going to know where Rosenbaum’s Boat Landing is or Curry’s Test Plot, Hansen’s Corner, the second homestead north of the state grounds.”
“That’s something we know as residents of this county,” said Campbell. “Other people may not know that — and that’s not listed on a map.”
“Just get directions from some of these people who live out in the country and then try to follow it,” said Campbell. “Try explaining to someone 52 miles from here how to get to the third house past your landfill on the left hand side.”
“I’ve lived in my house for 23 years,” said Campbell. “It’s still known as (banker) Loyal and Minnie Olson’s house or by really old people, the house Wyatt built.”
“I often direct people to my house by saying come down by the golf course where the old east side Conoco gas station was, turn right and I’m the third house on the left,” said Campbell, noting the gas station hasn’t been there for years. “We do that — that’s how we do things in this town, this county and this part of the country; and unless you know that, you’re not going to send help out to these people.”
“It’s a matter of officer safety,” said Campbell. “It’s a matter of public safety.”
“Time is of the essence,” said Campbell. “Seconds really do matter. Minutes really do count.”
“There is so much we do down there,” said Campbell. “I don’t know if anyone can fathom what we do.”
“It’s not just answering phones,” said Campbell. “I’m responsible for saving lives.”
“It’s a level of care I don’t expect someone else to have because they don’t live here,” he said. “ They have no interest in this place.”
“I’m not trying to point fingers, not trying to scream and say somebody’s wrong,” said Campbell. “I want people to be aware of the fact this has some serious ramifications. There is a huge value in local dispatching.”
“Seriously, this is going to be bad,” said Campbell. “The increased response time is going to paint the whole picture for them.”
“We have the tenacity to stay with it,” said Campbell. “We know who we’re calling — we know these people. We’ll keep calling until we get an answer. Somebody else ain’t going to do that.”
“The highs and lows I’ve experienced on this job are phenomenal,” said Campbell. “When you do something and it all works out and you have a survivor who wouldn’t have before — I can’t imagine any drug would give you a better high than that.”
“I did something,” he said, “and somebody’s alive because of what I did, what I said, who I got there or how I acted.”
“Then the lows,” said Campbell. “You lose. Sometimes the dice come up seven and you don’t get it. Sometimes it happens that way. That’s life. There are no guarantees.”
“You prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” said Campbell as he looks at the obituary again.