MORRIS - At the core of the Stevens County Law Enforcement Center is the dispatch center. The dispatch desk - home to nine computer screens showing courthouse cameras, radio traffic, computer aided dispatch and more - is staffed 24-hours per day, seven days per week by a team of seven employees who provide a link between citizens and emergency responders during some of their most difficult moments.

While deputies in the Stevens County Sheriff's Office can be put "on call" for some shifts - being at home but ready in case of an emergency - there "always has to be a body in the chair" in dispatch, said Sheriff Jason Dingman.

Dispatchers take that requirement seriously. There are no lunch breaks or trips to the bathroom if there isn't someone in the office to cover the desk - an eight-hour weekday or 12-hour weekend shift can be long and, if the calls are quiet, a little lonely.

On a recent Friday night for dispatcher Anna Alfson, not a single emergency call came in between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m. A sheriff's deputy and two Morris Police Department officers who were on call stopped in near the beginning of their shifts, but for the most part the courthouse was dark and the phones were quiet. But, Alfson assured me, this isn't a typical occurrence.

Dispatch takes an entirely different feel during an emergency. During one serious storm in 2006 - shortly before a new 911 system was put in place - Alfson recalled getting so many emergency calls, more than 90 in 15 minutes, that it jammed the entire system. Of those, only two were serious emergencies: a broken arm in Donnelly and a car accident on Highway 59. The rest were citizens calling to report their power was out.

"When there's nothing going on, it's perfect, but when it goes wrong you need everything you've got," Alfson said.

No longer 'any warm body'

One of the current challenges for dispatch centers across the country is finding qualified people for the position.

"Years ago we used to say 'any warm body' would be ok, but it has gotten so much more technical over the years," Stevens County Communications Manager Judy Diehl said.

One of the challenges, said Dingman, is that there are no official qualifications or requirements for dispatchers. Law enforcement officers need to be licensed through a state board, but there is no corresponding standard for dispatchers. There aren't even minimum training requirements, Diehl said.

"Twenty years ago it was different; it was a radio and telephone. Basically, you could get away with having less qualified people," Dingman said. "Now it's a struggle to find good, quality candidates for a dispatch position."

Dingman said there is discussion about creating dispatcher certification programs at some tech schools, "because there's a need for dispatchers to be coming out of school and ready to jump into something like this," but nothing is finalized yet.

Stevens County is lucky to have a number of experienced dispatchers on staff. Alfson, along with Ron Harmsen, Ashley Schmidgall and Brian Koehler, are the full-time dispatchers. They're assisted by part-time dispatchers Amber Wasiloski and a recent hire, Rob Lucus.

The county has a training checklist for new dispatchers that, depending on experience, can take more than 240 hours to complete. Some is online and some involves shadowing an experienced dispatcher.

"We generally ask people to come in and observe because it's a very good indicator if you want to do it or not," said Alfson, who has been a leader in training new dispatchers in the county.

The training checklist is seven pages long and includes everything from how to work the 911 call system to memorizing the phonetic alphabet and the "10 codes" to identify types of emergencies - a "10-52" is a personal injury call. The checklist ranges from the big picture, like how to manage radio traffic for each agency, to the very specific, like how to respond to a call when a car kills or injures a deer.

Dispatchers are also trained to run the courthouse security system; page out deputies; take emergency calls; look up information in the FBI's Criminal Justice Information System; remember protocols for accidents, traffic stops, alarms, and weather emergencies; and troubleshoot computers in the dispatch office.

"It is extensive training, but we don't ever want to leave somebody here that's not sure how to do the job," said Diehl, because it can endanger both law enforcement officers and the public.

Multitasking is required

Despite all that training, the number one quality in a good dispatcher is someone with the ability to multitask.

"When there's an emergency happening, there's numerous things the dispatcher needs to be doing all at the same time," Dingman said. "It's not safe for anyone if the dispatcher can only do one thing at a time."

Alfson said she thinks of her role as a dispatcher as being a conduit for information, gathering it from callers and passing it on accurately to deputies and officers in the field. Dispatchers can either resolve a situation - answer a question, send support - or make a referral to someone who can help.

"They need something if they're calling you, and what you want to do is fulfill the need," Alfson said.

Other qualities for a good dispatcher include familiarity with computers, the ability to speak clearly and pay attention to details, effective communication of important details - say, whether a suspect is armed or not - and the ability to stay calm in high-stress situations.

"When you've got a non-responsive person on the phone and you're trying to page out someone, you have to remain calm,"said part-time dispatcher Amber Wasiloski. "If you're getting amped up, you've got everybody on the other side amped up too."

One tool Stevens County uses for evaluating candidates and training new dispatchers is a program called CritiCall. The program trains users to identify emergency situations and assign the correct emergency responder - police, fire department, emergency services, or a utility company - accurately transcribe written and verbal information, and gather relevant information from emergency calls.

As the simulation continues, calls and tasks are interrupted by emergency dispatches, breaking concentration and requiring the user to make split-second decisions about what is the most important attention point in a given moment.

Discretion and difficult calls

Less obvious skills needed to be a dispatcher include discretion, patience and compassion.

"Trust is a big part of it too," Diehl said. "I know that anything I hear here stays here."

The dispatch desk is centrally located in the Stevens County Law Enforcement Center, providing a space for deputies and officers to congregate and casually debrief after calls for service.

"Everybody thinks that the cops and the firemen see all this bad stuff, and we do, but the dispatchers hear all this bad stuff," Dingman said. "I think that might even be harder on someone than seeing it and dealing with it."

Dispatchers are at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of the traumatic emergency calls they sometimes take. A 2012 study by researchers at Northern Illinois University found that dispatchers can experience a high level of "peritraumatic distress," the strong emotions felt during a traumatic event, when they take some of their most difficult calls. There's also often not the necessary time to process these events after they happen, since the job requires them to get back to work quickly.

The risk can be even higher in small towns, where dispatchers may know the people they're talking with in an emergency situation, said Diehl.

"When you're waiting on the phone with somebody until the ambulance or the officers get there, those seconds can take hours," Diehl said.

Because Stevens County has a small office, Diehl said dispatchers do usually find out how emergency situations played out by talking with officers and deputies in the field when they return to the courthouse. But the work of dispatchers often goes unnoticed by the general public.

"Nobody knows who the voice is behind the phone, so even though you get who you need to the scene, it's those faces that those people are going to thank," said Wasiloski. "But you're not doing it for the 'thank yous,' you're not doing it for the recognition. You do it because you know it's helping someone."

"The people that we have here are so dedicated and, I think, incredibly caring," Diehl said. "The professionalism that they show and the attention to detail; we all want to get the officers home safe every day, but the public service they do is often overlooked."

A conduit for the county

It's a common misconception that Stevens County dispatchers only take calls for the Stevens County Sheriff's Office. In fact, the dispatch center is the central location for all emergency calls in the county. This means dispatchers accept calls and send out responders from a wide variety of agencies including:

• Stevens County Sheriff's Office

• Morris, Hancock, University of Minnesota-Morris Police Departments

• Morris, Hancock, Chokio, Donnelly, Cyrus Fire Departments

• Hancock, Chokio, Donnelly First Responders

• Stevens County Ambulance Service

• West Central Environmental Control Services

• Minnesota State Patrol

• Minnesota Department of Natural Resources