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Posted on Thu, Dec 10, 2009 : 6:02 a.m.

Washtenaw County's dispatchers are calm voices on lonely nights

By Rich Kinsey

If you ever have to call 9-1-1, you'll speak to an unsung hero. Dispatchers, operators and telecommunicators are the first voice a person in need of assistance hears.

It's an extremely demanding job and absolutely essential to the emergency service providers on the street. Dispatchers and all who work in communications centers save countless lives and rarely get the credit they deserve.


A Huron Valley Ambulance dispatcher fields calls in this file photo.

The 9-1-1 operator is the first link in obtaining emergency services. Many who call are in crisis - they may be under extreme stress from fear, pain, shock, drugs, alcohol or any host of human emotions.

Many people need to be calmed before the operator can obtain any meaningful information. It is sometimes difficult to understand callers in an excited state. There may be background noise, a poor phone connection, language barriers or numerous calls coming into communications at the same time if the incident is big.

The operators must quickly obtain essential information and pass it on to the dispatcher.

The dispatcher’s responsibility is to prioritize the call, radio the appropriate emergency service provider - police, fire or emergency medical services - and make sure the closest available unit is sent to handle the “job.” 

Prioritizing involves judging which call is a greater emergency. Calls that are potentially life-threatening get top priority. Calls that require a police report about something that's already happened - such as a home invasion, malicious destruction of property or shoplifting - get a much lower priority.

Telecommunicators are also responsible for the officers on the road and whatever they might need. Traffic stops, warrant checks, car registration checks, stolen property checks and anything that requires a computer query or phone call is the responsibility of the telecommunicators and dispatchers.  

Good dispatchers are worth their weight in gold, and wise street cops understand this. Dispatchers who know the officers on the streets save lives. They know officers’ strengths and weaknesses and can get “jobs” handled most efficiently. 

More importantly, they keep the officers on the street safe by maintaining a critical link to other officers or assets needed to ensure everyone makes it to the end of their shift in one piece.  

Savvy dispatchers listen for an edge in an officer’s voice or a hesitation in radio transmission that might mean an officer needs assistance but is reluctant to ask for it. They send back up without being asked based on their instincts. 

It means a lot for street cops to know there is someone on the other end of the radio who actually cares about them and isn’t just putting in time for a paycheck. Many times in my career, dispatchers have saved me from embarrassment, injury and perhaps even death.

To assist emergency operators, take a few deep breaths as you are calling 9-1-1. Stay on the line until they tell you to hang up. Do not call 9-1-1 when storm sirens sound unless you need emergency assistance. Instead, go to your basement or interior room of your home and listen to a radio or television for information.  

If you want to thank the heroes who work in 9-1-1 centers, please e-mail or write their chief, sheriff, or post commander. But please don't call - they're busy enough handling the calls to keep Washtenaw County safe.


Rich Kinsey is a retired Ann Arbor detective sergeant who now blogs about crime and safety for



Fri, Dec 11, 2009 : 7:19 p.m.

Kudos to the Sheriff, Pittsfield, Ann Arbor, EMU, and Ypsilanti for all of the professional dispatchers in their employ. I can sympathize with Pittsfield's offer of zero on the raise deal. Imagine getting the boot from one the busiest cities in the county... Its a thankless position but my hat is off to the men and women that do the job correctly. Leonard S


Fri, Dec 11, 2009 : 5:33 a.m.

A Dispatchers Prayer: Help me keep safe those who depend on me, Give me healthy ears, for they are my link with those who need me. Keep my mind sharp and alert, my fingers quick and nimble. Grant that I never forget how to do ten things at once, and do them all equally well. Bless me with patience, Lord. Patience to deal with the public, the officers, the firefighters and everyone else who makes me want to grit my teeth and yell! Give me nerves of steel; That I may listen to a mother screaming for her child to live, the man with the gun, the family watching their home go up in flames, request for backup or more equipment and not give way to panic! Grant me empathy so that I may help a caller in need, and not cause them more pain than they already have. God, give me the ability to learn what I need, to remember it quickly. And give me the wisdom to use the knowledge properly. Lord, give me courage to preseve when I feel undervalued, unappreciated, overworked and unrecognized. Courage to keep trying when I feel in my heart it's hopeless. Last of all, Lord, help me to NEVER forget why I chose this job in the first place, to NEVER lose sight of what's important in the midst of the stress. Help to remember that I make a difference; however small it may seem some days, and that I MATTER! ~~~We don't need you all to think we're heroes, the truth is we already know how important we are. We know that the job we do is so difficult that it takes a really special person to do what we do day in and day out. Thank you for this article. And while we don't expect recognition nor do we rely on it, it is nice to feel appreciated once in a while.


Thu, Dec 10, 2009 : 4:37 p.m.

The majority of this article pertains to police dispatchers. HVA dispatches EMS and Fire, although they have a LONG way to go to truly call themselves central dispatch or fire dispatch. I come from a fire background where I am used to having that extra safety measure of knowing that the dispatcher is a trained firefighter and can anticipate what I am doing out on the street and will already have made phone calls that need to be made during a structure fire without having to be told to because that dispatcher has actually DONE the job before. A trained fire dispatcher is able to screen calls and determine what resources need to be by call. What we currently recieve is a dispatcher who will send our entire department and call it a possible structure fire, knowing full well that the call they just took was for pot on a stove that overheated and has been extinguished. You think that I'm making it up? It happens everyday on all types of calls that they dispatch us on. We lost a trained firefighter position, one that you can not measure the value of, when our administration gave our dispatch over to HVA. Now we have the pleasure of being charged, on average, $17 each time they dispatch us, even if it's to assist their crew....and in addition, they are going to charge the patient for this transport. Yes, I agree, they have a stressful job, but HVA is a long ways from providing the fire service the level of service that we gave up when our administrators were narrow minded and gave up our in house dispatch.


Thu, Dec 10, 2009 : 3:09 p.m.

Some may not agree with the term hero but perhaps you have not been in a situation where you have needed to call 911 for assistance in a life or death situation. Dispatchers are the ones on the phone with you while you wait for the police to arrive when you think someone has broken into your home and may still be there. We are the ones providing medical instructions until the fire dept and/or ambulance arrives on scene to take over. We are the ones who listen to your complaints about parking, panhandlers and traffic jams on football Saturdays when no one else will. We may not be the ones who show up to your home, office or traffic crash in a uniform and "save the day" but that certainly doesn't mean that we didn't play a part in it. We do all this and rarely get so much as a thank you. We get yelled at, cursed out and degraded by callers on a daily basis and yet we still show up and do our job. This may not fit your definition of a hero but it sure fits mine!

Pat Ivey

Thu, Dec 10, 2009 : 2:05 p.m.

Kudos to Rich Kinsey for this published recognition, and thanks to all employees throughout Washtenaw who stand ready to assist people in an emergency.


Thu, Dec 10, 2009 : 12:11 p.m.

mytwocents I fully understand your point of view, I've been in the dispatch room in the basement at hogback road, and seen them in action, they are remarkable. Theres no? they are special people. But I just feel the word hero is over used, and takes away from the real hero. Like our brave military people fighting over seas, and the brave police and fire fighters that entered into the world trade center to save people they don't even know, or a person that pulls somebody from a burning car. these people are heros. Just saying


Thu, Dec 10, 2009 : 11:26 a.m.

cinnabar7071- Hero feels appropriate to me. The mere fact that the dispatcher was able to calm me down and walk me through the needed steps is pretty amazing. I choose to use the title hero. Not all would do that, but it's fitting for me.


Thu, Dec 10, 2009 : 10:59 a.m.

I agree the dispatchers do a great job, but the use of the word Hero seems to be over used here, maybe you could one up them and nominate them for the noble peace prize. Hero:1 a : a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability b : an illustrious warrior c : a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities d : one that shows great courage


Thu, Dec 10, 2009 : 8:38 a.m.

What a great article. Dispatchers are the lifeline between the victim & the emergency personnel responding to the scene. It's really a shame that the dispatchers at Pittsfield Twp, who are one of the lowest paid in the county, were recently offered a 0% pay raise over the next 3 years by the Pittsfield Twp board. Are these the promises the board made when they were being elected into their positions?


Thu, Dec 10, 2009 : 7:44 a.m.

Unsung Hero? I agree completely. Several years ago I found my Dad unconscious and called 9-1-1. The dispatcher so calmly asked me questions and told me what to do for him, without me even realizing what I was doing. He was an absolute blessing and I will forever be grateful! Thank you.


Thu, Dec 10, 2009 : 7:33 a.m.

Thank you for the letter on the dispatchers. I worked for HVA in the billing dept. and spent some of my time in dispatch. I am very proud of all the workers and wish them well for the holiday season.