Oftentimes, Shelly Holzerland said the general public doesn’t think much about emergency dispatchers.
“They know they call 911 and help shows up, but we’re kind of the missing link in between,” she said. “We’re not seen, and people don’t really talk about us a lot.”
As communications director for the Fremont/Dodge County 911 Communications Center, Holzerland said there’s much that goes on behind the scenes as people are in need of emergency services.
The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International has designated the second week in April as National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week to celebrate telecommunications personnel in the public safety community.
“I think this is an important time to draw attention to this really important piece of the puzzle that’s serving the citizens and supporting the responders and just to take a minute to learn a little bit about what they’re doing and appreciate them for their efforts,” Holzerland said.
Having started with the Fremont Police Department’s dispatch center in 1983 at Sixth and Broad streets, Holzerland soon became supervisor. FPD moved its operations to its current building at 725 N. Park Ave., in 1997.
In 2012, FPD and the Dodge County Sheriff’s Office decided to combine their dispatch centers at the FPD building. Holzerland applied for the director position and was hired in 2013.
Looking back on her nearly four-decade career with dispatch, Holzerland said the center is much busier now than it used to be.
“When I first started, we had a single dispatcher working for the city of Fremont, and then a single dispatcher for the rest of the county,” she said. “Currently, we have two or three dispatchers on, but they are busy pretty much all of the time.”
Currently, Holzerland said the center has seven dispatchers on hand. As the center is allowed to have up to 11 on the team, she said interested applicants can sign up on the city of Fremont’s website.
Additionally, two dispatchers are also in the process of training, Holzerland said.
“Most of the training we do here onsite, we have a team of experienced dispatchers who take different modules of training, and we do it on the job here,” she said. “There is one short course that has to be taken at the law enforcement academy for one of the computer systems we use, but the rest of it is onsite here.”
As the job requires the use of different applications and programs, Holzerland said dispatchers-in-training undergo heavy computer learning, as well as geography.
“Location is the key to our job, so you have to know where people are before you can send them help,” she said. “And so we spend a lot of time learning the geography of the county as well.”
Overall, the process of training a dispatcher takes five months from beginning to end, Holzerland said.
“There’s a lot of things to know, and you don’t have time to look stuff up,” she said. “So you have to be able to respond to most things automatically.”
Working in 12-hour shifts, the dispatchers relay communications throughout the entire county, including fire departments, volunteer fire departments and village police departments.
Holzerland said the center receives calls from two routes: wireless or landline.
“On a landline is almost like a direct connection: We can see the address, and it automatically maps right where you’re at,” she said.”
Although it may seem as though dispatchers are asking more questions than needed during a call, Holzerland said there’s a purpose for that.
“Because there are always at least two dispatchers in there, the questioning is not delaying the response,” she said. “As one dispatcher is gathering information, they are automatically putting it into a computer system that everybody in the room can see.”
From there, Holzerland said the dispatcher will continue to ask questions to assess the situation and make sure the scene is safe for both the caller and responders.
“So a lot of times when people call 911, it seems like it’s an excessive amount of questions, but they all serve a purpose and the response is being dispatched,” she said.
Holzerland said as citizens’ technology changes, the center’s technology has needed to change as well to adapt.
“So we do have text-to-911, and the next generation of 911 will include video and things like that,” she said. “We’re not quite there yet, but we’re working toward that.”
Holzerland said the center’s activity is constant, as dispatchers don’t just wait for one call at a time.
“Dispatchers are talking on the radio and picking up 911 calls and talking to citizens about general information and transferring calls, and so it’s a lot more than just answering a phone,” she said. “There’s a lot of things going on, and multitasking is a huge skill that’s needed for this job.”
As the center runs non-stop, Holzerland said it’s vital to recognize the importance of dispatchers.
“They’re here weekends and holidays and Christmas Eve, and they do it because they want to give back to their community,” she said. “And this is just kind of a chance to put the spotlight on them.”