By Jacob Mathias
They’re truly the first responders of your emergency, but you’ll probably never see them.
The Portage County Communication Center is the hub of logistics for area law enforcement, fire and emergency medical services.
“One, we are the lifeline for our deputies,” Communication Center Manager Denise Schultz. “Two, we are the first first responders in all actuality. We page out first responders. We page out ambulances but we are the first first responders.”
The center employs 18 communication technicians, commonly called dispatchers, who take all the calls from the public, police officers, firemen, EMTs and any other related departments.
Many of the dispatchers have been at the job for years and they all have similar reasons.
“I like to help people. I love to help people,” said Schultz.
Schultz has been dispatching since 1991 and while the job has changed a lot in terms of technology, she stays for the reason of helping.
“There are times when you feel like you did make an impact on somebody,” said Susan Dimka, an 18-year-veteran of the center. “I try to listen to what they’re saying in the background…you need to anticipate their emotional needs.”
Portage County and the City of Stevens Point previously housed separate communication centers but they merged in the summer of 2013 and now fall under county jurisdiction. The city and county share up to five dispatchers who simultaneously work the phone lines to answer calls for service.
Each dispatcher sits in a front of a panel of six computer monitors controlling the entire operation. Information is important to every call and the dispatchers have access to many databases and programs showing GPS locations, criminal records, traffic reports, property owners and more.
“There aren’t many jobs out there that are similar to ours,” said Penny Oliver, a lead communication technician. “A lot of people think we answer the phone or we’re secretaries and that’s far from it. That’s just not it at all.”
The ability to multitask and multi-listen is the most important skill for the job said Schultz. The dispatchers can listen to multiple calls and police radios all while doing research and entering information into their computer systems at the same time.
The center is a flurry of activity with constant beeps, jingles and flashing lights. There are multiple people talking at the same time both in the room and over the phone.
The dispatchers keep track of all of it.
“I just continue to stay at this position because every day is a different day,” said Oliver. “It’s never boring. It’as always new. You’re learning something new every day. You couldn’t ask for a more fulfilling job honestly.”
The dispatchers work long hours, completing 10 hour shifts for seven days straight and then having seven days off.
“We spend 10 hours a day at work. We see these people more than our family,” said Dimka.
“Because of the type of calls that we take…we’ve had some rough calls. You become family because who else do you have to talk to about the calls,” said Schultz.
Dimka said you never know what your next call could be and you have to be ready for anything. On a recent morning, Dimka’s first call after seven days off was the 911 call reporting a domestic shooting in Bancroft.
“If 911 goes off at 3 o’clock in the morning, you know it can’t be a good thing,” said Dimka.
She said the hardest part of her job is any call regarding domestic violence or anytime children are endangered.
“One of the biggest fears of all of us is that we know somebody when it’s a traumatic call, and we have. We all have been there,” said Schultz. “That’s hard because you still have to do your job even though you know these people.”