EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one story in a monthly series about Barton County law enforcement.
Liz Nolan knew she wanted a career in which she could help people. But studying to be a nurse or emergency medical technician was out of the question.
Nolan didn’t feel comfortable being around needles and blood.
She then recalled hearing about law-enforcement dispatching from her dad. He had worked for Southwestern Bell in the same building that houses the Barton County 911 system at 1300 Stone.
Career problem solved.
“Most people don’t wake up and think ‘I want to be a dispatcher when I grow up,’” said Nolan, 31. “It just happened to fall into my hands and now I am so passionate about it; I live and breathe it. I can help people on what could be the worst day of their lives.”
Today, Nolan is supervisor at Barton County Communications/911 where dispatchers answer the first calls for the first responders.
“We relay information to all emergency responders,” Nolan said. “All of us are very fortunate here. We are a tight family with all the agencies. They respect our job and we work as a team.
“The most important part of our jobs is officer safety and ensuring that all of our emergency responders make it home safely every day at the end of their shifts,” Nolan added. “We are their lifeline while they are out in the field.”
The team of professionals in Barton County consists of nine fire departments; four emergency medical services; and six law enforcement agencies – four police departments, the sheriff’s office and the Kansas Highway Patrol.
With a list like that, the word “multi-tasking” easily comes to mind.
“That is my strength,” Nolan commented. “And along with multi-tasking comes prioritizing. We could be giving CPR instructions, assisting with a traffic accident and sending out the fire department all simultaneously. And we have to maintain calm even though decisions are made within seconds.”
When Nolan is at her workstation, she faces six computer screens while she talks on the radio and types simultaneously.
“We run license tags, and check drivers’ licenses and criminal history, etc.,” she explained. “This is in addition to sending the proper agency to a call for help. Time, location, unit responding and other information are entered into a detailed log. We document everything.”
The variety of 911 calls can be staggering – from the heartbreaking to the mundane – and everything in between.
Nolan remembers one particular call from early in her nine years as a dispatcher. A man was on the line, threatening to commit suicide with a gun.
“While help was on the way, I stayed on the line and just talked with him,” Nolan recalled. “He didn’t follow through. In that moment, I knew I helped; I felt I made a difference.”
But there are also calls that haunt a dispatcher. “That happens when you realize you can’t help,” Nolan said. “You know there is nothing else you can do for someone.
“One example is a fatality traffic accident,” she elaborated. “We hear the emergency responders on the radio. We know their voices. We can tell by their voices that what they are seeing is horrific. I hate hearing the hurt in their voices.”
This is when it is difficult for a dispatcher to leave work at work. “I can shut it off most of the time,” Nolan said. “You can’t let it consume you. But sometimes there are days …”
During many calls, dispatchers have to ask a number of questions, which sometimes antagonizes callers who don’t realize help is already on the way. While Nolan is talking with them, another dispatcher has contacted the appropriate agency.
“When we continue to ask questions, they get upset,” Nolan said. “They say ‘just get somebody out here.’ But we have to ask questions so the emergency responders know what to prepare for.
“We tell the caller that help is on the way because another dispatcher notified the police or the fire department,” she continued. “Sometimes we tell them more than once. But we understand they are under stress.”
While 911 is designed for emergency calls only, Nolan and her colleagues get their share of non-emergency reports. Examples include complaints about the wrong package being left on the porch; callers asking for directions; requests for burn permits; and requests for rides to doctors’ appointments.
“When we are busy, we may have to put these callers on hold,” she acknowledged. “But we still remain professional and polite. At the same time, we have to be clear about not tying up emergency lines.”
The administrative number is available 24 hours every day for nonemergency calls. It is 620- 793-1920.