When Anne Kindness started working at the Billings emergency dispatch center 34 years ago, calls involving weapons were rare. Now it's not unusual to get 10 weapons (guns, knives, etc.) calls in 48 hours.
The volume and intensity of the emergencies has increased exponentially as Billings has grown. For example, since Jan. 1, the dispatch center has received 1,561 calls on threatened/attempted/completed suicides. Dispatchers are trained to ask people questions and, in medical emergencies, to guide them through appropriate steps until EMTs or paramedics arrive.
Kindness will retire this month after 30 years of managing the emergency communications center serving all of Yellowstone County, a job she loves.
Kindness praises her "awesome" staff. "Our senior-most dispatcher has over 33 years under her belt and nearly half the staff has been here for over ten years," she told The Gazette recently. "911 work is notorious for turnovers and vacancies so we have been extremely fortunate to have such a stable staff because this just isn’t a job you learn in a couple of months. It takes years of training and experience to master and even then, you are regularly handed situations you may have never handled before."
It takes 4-5 years to become fully qualified to work all positions in at the city-county center.
"The 911 Center has always been understaffed given the workload, but the steady escalation of violent incidents and a stunning increase in contacts with or reports involving mental illness and/or drug use have really changed the tone and intensity of our work product," Kindness said.
The center is budgeted for 31 dispatchers and four shift supervisors. Typically, six dispatchers are on duty at all times; that includes one police dispatcher, one sheriff dispatcher, one fire/EMS dispatcher, one police administrative support dispatcher and two 911 operators. Kindness tries to staff with up to eight during high demand hours that run from about 2 p.m. till 9 p.m.
The center is hiring dispatchers to fill vacancies created by a recent promotion and Kindness' retirement.
You have free articles remaining.
The new dispatch center that opened in June near Fire Station No. 1 was paid for with many years of 911 grants that Kindness insisted on saving for a better place to work.
"We can have meetings in a private room instead of in a wide spot in the hallway. Ladies and gentlemen have separated toilet facilities," Kindness said of the new center. "Our old center had only two temperatures — freezing and sweating, each occurring on opposite sides of the room. Even though our old building was a tight, hot mess, the work product was excellent — as it continues to be in our new facility. But now, people take pride in where they work. They feel valued because they have a beautiful, secure facility that was designed for comfort and functionality."
Kindness wants callers to understand that 9-1-1 operators must ask questions so they understand exactly what is going on so they can prepare responders for what they will encounter. "Informed responders are safer responders," she said.
"Most people don’t know that generally there are only two 911 operators to serve a population of approximately 160,000 countywide. If you have occasion to call 911 and get put on hold, that’s why. Those operators have to juggle and prioritize the majority of the in-coming 911 and non-emergency telephone calls."
With limited staff, police no longer respond to vehicle accidents when icy streets cause an overwhelming number of crashes. Victims of thefts and vandalism no longer report those incidents to an officer and instead file reports with citizen volunteers at the Crime Prevention Center.
"These measures were adopted to increase the odds that police officers are available for priority incidents," Kindness said. "But even with these contingencies, people can wait a long time for an officer to arrive. In a true emergency, dispatch will turn over heaven and earth to find somebody to go, and once responders are aware of a situation, they respond quickly. But for the victim of a burglary or somebody who’s observed suspicious activity, those people sometimes wait hours and hours for an available officer."
The 911 center is a crucial part of public safety service, and Kindness has been the leader in keeping it updated. As this community decides what it wants for police and fire service, emergency communications must be part of the plan for keeping Billings safe.