During his two years as a La Crosse County dispatcher, Jay Loeffler quickly learned that the definition of an emergency is most certainly not universal.
Among the thousands of calls reporting accidents, injuries and intruders, the occasional head-shaking query comes in, with one memorable conversation regarding a restaurant reservation.
Loeffler, one of the 10 original La Crosse County dispatchers and the current administrator for Emergency Services, recalls a report from a woman attempting to make dinner reservations and distressed the line was continuously busy. Requesting an officer to check on the delay, Loeffler reminded her 911 is intended for emergencies.
“She said, ‘Well, what would you call it if you had eight people who are hungry,’” Loeffler recounted. “Emergencies mean different things to different people.”
This year marks the 35th anniversary of the 911 system in La Crosse County, with today the 50th anniversary of the first call ever — made on Feb. 16, 1968, in Haleyville, Ala. Prior to the implementation of the universal emergency number, people needed to look up the individual seven-digit numbers for fire, police and ambulance, which then had to contact their partner services, wasting valuable time in sometimes life-or-death situations.
The push for a concise, all-encompassing number came in 1957 from the National Association of Fire Chiefs, and in 1967 the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice gave its recommendation. Telephone company AT&T decided on the exact digits, selecting 911 for its memorability and uniqueness, having never been authorized as an office, area or service code.
By 1979, 26 percent of the U.S. population had access to the 911 system, with La Crosse following suit four years later. The first call came in six hours ahead of the official Jan. 5, 1983, start date, from a woman seeking help after someone who had collapsed in her home. She learned of the system in a flyer included in her phone bill. The next day, 14 calls came in, three of them by mistake.
Since then, local dispatchers have taken more than 850,000 emergency calls, with a record 30,638 in 2017. The most calls in a single 24-hour period — 335 — came in June 28, 2014, coinciding with a severe thunderstorm. Weather incidents are the number one cause for a 911 call, accounting for six of the top 10 highest call volume records. Oktoberfest was responsible for the other four.
Anywhere from 50 to 100 calls are answered every day by the department’s 27 telecommunicators, 97 percent of them acknowledged within 10 seconds. Around 60 percent of calls qualify as actual emergencies, with thousands of misdials, pocket dials among them, coming in annually, other with hang ups. Every call is followed up on.
“We consider all 911 calls emergencies until verified,” Leoffler said.
Ken Damaschke, third-shift supervisor and with La Crosse County 911 dispatch for 15 years, has experienced the wave of emotions that come with his position, having talked a father through delivering his child in the back of a car and coaxing a suicidal man to accept help. Frantic calls about opioid overdoses are frighteningly common.
“The day of the week, the time of day — it doesn’t matter. You have to be prepared for what you can’t be prepared for,” Damaschke said. “I’ve heard first breaths, and I’ve heard last breaths.”
A faced-paced and often stressful job, a successful dispatcher requires common sense, sharp focus and a ability to maintain a level head. Those calling for help are often in their worst state of mind, frazzled, despondent and at times incoherent, leaving dispatchers to decipher what they can while giving direction and imparting calm. Leaving the chaos behind after a shift is essential — without outlets and interests outside of work, the job can take an emotional and mental toll.
“You can’t take it home with you every night,” Damaschke stressed, adding, “You have to remember the good calls.”
The incidents with happy endings are always rewarding, and heartwarming, and the random calls, though sometimes exasperating, can provide some much needed levity to the day. When Loeffler was in dispatch, he remembers his coworkers keeping a log of humorous calls, like a report of a lion roaming a yard in the city. The animal in question was found to be a golden retriever, his fur clipped and groomed to resemble the king of the jungle for a child’s zoo-themed birthday party.
Damaschke’s most memorable call started out quite serious, with a report of a severely intoxicated man attempting to enter his car. Keeping the caller on the line until officers arrived, Damaschke asked the caller’s name.
“Electron: A real life superhero living in La Crosse,” the man responded quite seriously. Damaschke entered the name verbatim into the online report.
“It was entirely legitimate,” Damaschke said, noting officers found the potential driver several times over the legal limit, and Electron clothed in a skintight black and yellow costume and helmet, keeping vigil. “He was just a good Samaritan who wanted to help people.”
Calls come in about “pretty much everything you can imagine,” Loeffler says, but warns that prank calls waste precious resources when time may be of the essence for another caller. In addition, legal action may be taken.
Loeffler advises that children be taught the purpose of 911 as soon as they are capable of operating a phone, and encourages callers to use landlines to make emergency calls whenever possible. Currently 80 percent of incoming calls are wireless, which are more difficult to track. If the caller can’t give an address, both a cell phone tower location and service provider must be identified to begin narrowing down the whereabouts.
Five percent of 911 centers nationwide offer texting service at this time, a trend Loeffler calls concerning, noting background noise and tone of voice can be invaluable.
“Dispatchers can’t see anything — they have to go by what they hear and what they’re told,” Loeffler said.
Working behind the scenes, dispatchers don’t often receive the thanks and recognition bestowed on other responders, and are not usually privy to the outcome of the incidents, though some inquire. For eight hours, Loeffler said, they take on the problems of everyone who calls.
“They’re definitely the unsung heroes,” Loeffler said. “They’re the people you don’t see, but they definitely are the first responders.”