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Dispatcher: Every call like a puzzle

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GPS technology used to locate LaRue County callers

By Ron Benningfield

As a LaRue County 911 dispatcher – or telecommunicator for the politically correct – Daniel Highbaugh never knows what crisis awaits him when he answers the phone.

“I’ve taken calls from people who have shot themselves, others were getting shot at, some have threatened suicide, or been in fights, or wrecks; for many of them, it’s a life and death situation,” the 2004 LaRue County High School graduate said.

As a case in point, in May he received a call from a distressed woman whose 5-year-old grandson was missing. She had hesitated to call 911 because she was afraid the call would go out over the airwaves where pedophiles possibly could be listening.

“When it comes to juveniles, we attempt to deal with the situation as quietly as possible,” said Highbaugh, who added he used a land line to alert authorities of the missing youngster. The lad was found safe and sound later that afternoon after he had “run away” with his pet dog.

For all calls, Highbaugh has a certain protocol he follows. 

“The first thing I say to the caller is that I am here to help,” he said. “It’s understandable, but most callers are so upset because of the emergency that they aren’t thinking straight enough to tell me what’s happened and where they are, so I have them take a couple of deep breaths and then answer my questions.”

Those answers are vital if he is to send the right responders to the correct location. What situation is the person encountering? What is the address including house number? 

“Some people think all a telecommunicator does is answer the phone,” said Chris Jackson, deputy emergency services coordinator. “He is responsible for much more, including obtaining pertinent information, documenting that information and time of call accurately, and for alerting the proper authorities – fire department, police, sheriff, EMS or utilities.”

To prepare him for his position, Highbaugh attended a four-week academy at Eastern Kentucky University.

“We did a lot of role playing at the academy to cover various situations, but they can’t compare with a real person undergoing a real emergency on the phone,” he said.

Since he began work in 2007, Highbaugh has answered calls from dog bite victims, from parents with out-of-control juveniles, fights, thefts, cats in trees, about as many situations as can be imagined.

Jackson noted that in the past year, his office received 68,000 calls of all varieties.

“Some people misuse the service, calling for information or other non-emergency matters,” he said. He said that of the 8,000 true emergency calls, 62 percent were made on cell phones, items that can be a real help in locating the victim.

Thanks to GPS (global positioning system) technology, dispatchers can pinpoint calls from landlines as well as can get to within 25 feet with cellular calls. They even can plot the location of a cell phone in a moving vehicle.

“The main thing for the caller with a cell phone to remember is don’t hang up,” Highbaugh said.

Wally Sparks, a fellow dispatcher with 19 years experience, said a cell phone helped rescuers find a man whose arm was caught in farm machinery.

“The man’s wife, worried about him, drove an ATV to a field where she found him and called us on her cell phone,” Sparks said. “She told us she didn’t know their exact location, but we were able to pinpoint the cell phone location and send first responders directly to them.”

The phone was especially vital in this case because a hill hid the victim from view.   

Never give up

“Just as they shouldn’t hang up, we never hang up or give up on them,” Highbaugh said. “We’re taught to make sure we’ve collected our emotions, which can be hard to do, especially when we know the caller, then we talk to them for information, to give instructions, and to keep them focused until help arrives.”

“If a person calls saying someone is threatening them with a gun, we ask where the person with the gun is so we can better prepare and possibly protect the first responders,” said Jackson. 

Sometimes the threat comes from the caller himself as when one person called Highbaugh, threatening suicide.

“He was drunk and upset, and said he needed help,” Highbaugh said. “Then he started talking about killing himself.”

While obtaining the basic information so that he could send help, Highbaugh stayed on line with the distraught caller for over an hour, listening and letting the person vent his feelings. 

“About a week later, he called me and apologized,” Highbaugh said.

He said the don’t-know-what-to-expect-next atmosphere of his job is what keeps it exciting.

“Every call is like pieces of a puzzle which we try to put together to see the whole picture.”

LaRue County has four full-time dispatchers – Sparks, Highbaugh, Phil Milby and Paula Trumbo; and four part-time – Anthony Bailey, Michael Key, John Chaudoin and Jason Dennis.