It’s a job that normally remains “behind the scenes.” Dispatchers in the LaGrange County Communications Center work in 12-hour shifts, staffing the center 24 hours a day every day of the year, even holidays.
They handle a variety of calls from people needing help. It can, as Communications Director Arron Knisley noted, go “from zero to a hundred in one phone call.”
One such phone call came in just before midnight back on February 2 when a woman called to say she had been taken hostage. Thanks to the quick thinking of the dispatcher on duty, Heather Lock, the woman was able to escape her captor, an escaped convict from Michigan named Michael Elliot.
That event shined a light on the work that dispatchers do every day. This week is National Telecommunicator Week, highlighting the ongoing work dispatchers do in the community.
The LaGrange County Communications Center has 10 full-time and two part-time dispatchers, along with Knisley. Their certifications fill two rows along a wall. “There’s 120 hours of training required to be a dispatcher,” Knisley said. However, LaGrange County dispatchers also have monthly training that covers a wide area of specific subjects, from radio etiquette to new technology to how to work with callers of different generations. “We train all the time to work with different people,” Knisley explained. “This covers age, cultural and language differences. We don’t know who will be on the other end of the call.”
Most of the dispatchers serve the community in other capacities, such as reserve officers or as EMTs. “They bring that knowledge with them,” Knisley said.
The center has also been working with social media to expand their outreach through Facebook, Twitter, and Nixle, a service that sends out texts and e-mails from the department. “That’s been really enjoyable,” Knisley said of the social media work. “We can engage more with the community.” It also gives the community an outlet to show its support for what they do.
Social media has been instrumental in helping the department find wanted persons or stolen property. A post on Facebook about a stolen truck had over 26,000 views.
They also used social media this winter as the county was hit with snowstorm after snowstorm, keeping the public up to date on road conditions and other issues.
But it was the event in February that really went big as it garnered not only state and regional attention, but national and international as well. “The Elliot case did a lot for the county,” Knisley said. “It opened the eyes to the work that even small county dispatchers do every day.” The story of Elliot’s escape from prison, the work the dispatchers did to save his hostage, and the search and eventual capture of the escapee, resulted in calls to the LaGrange County dispatch center from CNN, Fox News, national newspapers and international organizations. Even two months later, Knisley is being contacted about the event as a production company from England is looking to showcase the story on a television series on the I.D. channel
That event also showed that a small community center can handle that kind of work that many think can only happen in the “big city.” “We have good people doing good things,” Knisley said. “We’re helping someone in crisis every day.”