Public honors 911 operators for their work

They’re the first point of contact you have when you call 911 during an emergency.

Their work often goes unnoticed, but it’s vital to the public and law enforcement, especially during a moment of crisis.

Dispatchers handle the stress of communicating a 911 call to law enforcement or first responders. Sometimes, that information could be the difference between life and death.

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Dispatchers were recognized recently through National Dispatchers Week for their role in helping the public and the agencies they serve.

Toby Ortman, 46, who has worked as a dispatcher at the Seymour Police Department for 20 years, said very few people understand the calls dispatchers take. Sometimes, they’re a funny call, and other times, they’re stressful or serious.

“People would be shocked and amazed by the calls we take,” he said. “They range from funny to heart-wrenching, but we just try to do the best we can.”

But dispatchers have a simple goal for each caller, Ortman said.

“If you really break it down, we’re really just trying to help them,” he said. “It’s the calls you least expect that will kind of get you.”

A call from years ago sticks with Ortman. He remembers a man called because he found his wife after she died. Ortman can remember details like they had been married for decades, the street the caller lived on and that the couple’s anniversary was four days away.

“They’re blank faces to us because we don’t see the faces, but we feel 100% what’s coming through the phone,” he said. “Here was this older man, and you could tell this woman was his world. You could hear the pain in his voice.”

Police Chief Bill Abbott said dispatchers deserve more credit from the public and even police. He said they go through the same pressure and emotions as police officers.

“They’re the unsung heroes,” he said. “I don’t give them enough credit or praise for the job that they do, but they make our job easier and possible.”

It can be difficult, stressful and emotional, but it’s the type of work that truly makes a difference, Liz McKinney said. The 28-year-old has worked as a dispatcher for the Seymour Police Department since 2010.

“I feel like when I leave here each day that I’ve helped someone and I’ve done the right thing,” she said.

She was 20 at that time she applied for the job and said she was interested because it felt like the right career for her.

“I can’t really say what drew me to it, but I saw they were taking applications and decided I wanted to try,” she said. “I’ve never wanted to be a police officer, but I have so much respect for them.”

McKinney said the work is not like it is on television where everything is dramatized. Some of those shows give the public unrealistic expectations of 911 operators.

Many people watch television shows where police departments are able to ping phones to find their locations. McKinney said it’s not that simple, and those efforts are only used in cases of life or death.

McKinney said many people call because they are either angry with a person or haven’t heard from them.

“We have to sign a paper that states it was life or death for us to ping it,” McKinney’s colleague, Briana Bryson, 34, said.

Then there are the calls from angry people who want information about trains, school closings, Halloween trick or treating hours, power outages and more.

Then there are the calls where they feel they have made the difference in the lives of people in need.

McKinney and Bryson shared a story about how they were able to help a blind woman who needed to cross the street, but no one would help her. They were able to find an officer to help the woman cross safely because the dog would not allow her to cross.

“It’s that one call out of 100 that really makes you feel you have done something good,” Bryson said.

Then there are the calls that make you laugh.

A man once called because his ex-girlfriend, who thought they were getting back together, drove him to Seymour, McKinney said. But the man only wanted her to bring him there so he could meet his new girlfriend.

When the women found out what happened, both left without him.

“He called 911 to see if one of our guys could take him home,” she said. “We don’t really do things like that.”

Bryson said a man called because he wanted officers to take a photo of a convenience store bathroom because it didn’t have toilet paper.

“I thought it was a prank, but it wasn’t,” she said.

The man told dispatchers he used the restroom at a local gas station and it was not equipped with toilet paper, making him terribly uncomfortable.

The situation trapped in him the bathroom for 45 minutes, yelling for the clerk he said didn’t help him.

He left the gas station without flushing the toilet.

The clerk also called and said she didn’t want him to ever come back to the store.

Each were working the day of the murder-suicide at Cummins Seymour Engine Plant in March 2016.

McKinney took the call but could not understand the man who first reported it. With his accent, she thought the man said “Commons” and thought he was reporting something from the place in Columbus.

“I went in blind and didn’t know what to ask because it had never happened,” she said. “It all happens when you least expect it. After everything calmed down, we just processed what we just did.”

The situation led to frantic calls from the public.

McKinney said many parents made the situation more difficult by calling and requesting information, considering the factory’s proximity to the middle school.

“We could just release information but tried to explain the situation was resolved and their children were safe,” she said.

Bryson said it took a couple of hours after the Cummins shooting for the phone lines to stop constantly ringing.

“We didn’t really quite know what was going on for a while,” she said.

McKinney has worked some difficult calls and remembers one where a woman shot herself while on the phone.

She had only been at the department for two years and was pregnant at the time. She remembers being emotional after it happened.

The department provided her with a counselor to talk to following the incident.

“That’s the big thing here, mental health,” she said. “I don’t think enough light gets shined on the stress and mental health of this job.”

McKinney said she and her co-workers have left feeling like the “life has been sucked out of us” on more than one occasion.

Bryson said dispatchers have to check in with each other and leave their duties at work instead of bringing them home to their families.

“You have to compartmentalize things, and when you hit the door, you have to leave it here,” she said. “For the most part, that’s a learned quality.”

Bryson said she leans on co-workers for help.

“If someone has one of those bad calls, it’s nothing for one of us to ask them if they’re all right,” she said.

Ortman said emotions take a toll, but everyone needs to find an outlet. His is fishing.

“You just have to stop where you’re at and take an inventory,” he said. “You can pour from an empty cup.”

McKinney said the priority is simple for callers, people involved in the situation and for officers and first responders.

“The main thing we want is that everyone is safe,” she said.