Police dispatcher handles stressful but vital tasks

Nicholas Donaldson was looking for a change of pace when he started working at Central Michigan University Dispatch. 

The rigors of handling emergency calls for 12 hours straight at Central Dispatch, where all emergency calls for Isabella County are taken, left him stressed at the end of the day, and the Mount Pleasant junior chose to move to the less demanding CMU police dispatch.

Not that he is relaxing at CMUPD. Donaldson still works 12 hour shifts at least three times a week, on top of taking classes for his Integrative Leadership Studies major, and any overtime work he can pick up. On busy days, it’s just as stressful as Central Dispatch.

“Dispatchers play a very important role when working with officers,” Lt. Cameron Wassman said. “They're able to provide important information to our officers even before they show up on a call.”

Dispatchers manage much of that information with the LEIN system, or the Law Enforcement Information Network.

Using the network, dispatchers can check an individual’s criminal history, vehicle registration and see if there are any outstanding warrants for their arrest.

“It’s basically where we get all of our information,” said Jaimee Cotter, who has worked with CMU Dispatch for four years. Cotter is a dispatcher and parking services specialist.

In Michigan, dispatchers must complete 120 hours of training in classes approved by the state. Additionally, dispatchers for CMU police must complete 14 weeks of on-the-job training once they are hired.

“Dispatchers need to be committed to the job, willing to work as a larger team, have attention to detail, be able to act in stressful situations, and certainly be able to multitask,” Wassman said. “There's also a large element of customer service that is necessary as they interact with callers in public.”

Sometimes Donaldson receives 911 calls, where he needs to act fast while keeping the caller calm.

"As a dispatcher, I have taken many calls where I helped the caller calm down or mitigate a stressful situation," Donaldson said. "One thing I remember from training is, when people call 9-1-1, they are having an emergency. It isn't always a true emergency, but one to them none the less."

Donaldson recalled an experience when a caller reported a deceased person found in an on-campus apartment.

"The person had been dead for quite some time," he said. "I had to talk with the caller, keeping him calm while obtaining information."

Donaldson talked the person through securing the scene and obtained information that helped with the investigation.

Other day-to-day duties of dispatchers include giving breathalyzer tests required for people on probation, monitoring security cameras and alarms on campus and keeping track of radio messages, including those from Mount Pleasant Police.

Dispatchers also keep track of each police vehicle on patrol, checking in with officers regularly. They serve 12 hour shifts with the same officers each shift. Donaldson said this helps develop a relationship between officers and dispatchers.

“I get to know their voices. I get to know their personalities,” he said. “Sometimes, I know what they’re going to ask before they ask me.”

Despite being important in coordinating police communication, Donaldson said he doesn’t often receive the same acknowledgement as the officers on the other end of the radio.

“A lot of times from the dispatch side, you don’t get the recognition,” he said.

But Donaldson said he doesn’t do the job for the praise. It’s enough to know he’s helped keep citizens and officers safe.

“They are able to help them keep safe on a call and also provide relevant call information that can help them address an issue in a timely fashion,” Wassman said.