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'911, what's your emergency'

Michelle Schenach manages incoming calls for service from her desk in the Goodhue County Law Enforcement Center. Sarah Hansen / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 5
Wayne Betcher has worked as a 911 dispatcher for 27 years and grown with the profession. He's developed into a bit of legend in the tech world, fellow Goodhue County dispatchers said. Sarah Hansen / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 5
Goodhue County dispatch center has lights resembling traffic semaphores attached to work stations. The red light tells others in the room that the dispatcher is on a live call. Sarah Hansen/ RiverTown Multimedia3 / 5
Michelle Bygd answers a call in the Goodhue County dispatch center on April 6, 2018. This is National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week. Sarah Hansen / RiverTown Multimedia4 / 5
Ben Lawson surprises wife Chelsea with a visit from their children to the Goodhue County dispatch center. Both the Lawsons are military veterans and 911 dispatchers. Sarah Hansen / RiverTown Multimedia5 / 5

Wayne Betcher has worked as a 911 dispatcher in Goodhue County for 27 years. In that time, he's seen dispatch develop as a profession from some very humble beginnings.

Back then, dispatchers worked just two crew members at a time or one person overnight. They operated out of a little hallway and, when the button on the phone rang red, you knew it was for 911. There was no accompanying data, no computer-aided dispatch system, no cellphone calls and, in fact, far fewer calls altogether.

Today, Goodhue County dispatchers receive an average of 100 calls requiring service each day and 300 calls overall. The team is larger, with six-plus dispatchers working 11.5-hour days. They manage calls using a sophisticated computer-assisted dispatch or CAD system that can handle multiple lines of service and show unique map details including snowmobile trails and premise response files.

And the calls are more difficult, too. Local dispatchers receive many calls related to traffic on Highway 61, reckless and drunken driving, domestic arguments, suicide attempts and, occasionally, someone just looking for a person to talk to.

"Sometimes you just feel really bad for people," said Michelle Bygd, another longtime dispatcher. "You definitely have to build up a shell or you'd go home crying every night."

All happening at once

The job is actually so focused on multitasking these days that, to get a job in Goodhue County, an applicant must pass a specialized multitasking test.

The team has to take in audio information while managing a large dataset. Dispatchers respond to calls on the non-emergency line and 911. When callers are experiencing a medical emergency, dispatchers connect callers to North Ambulance or Gold Cross for pre-arrival instructions while directing paramedics at the Red Wing Fire Department or a regional ambulance come to their aid.

During the extensive power outage in Red Wing on March 29, Goodhue County dispatchers patched a number of calls to keep communication open for the Fire Department, Red Wing police and the State Patrol to help ease the flow of traffic and reduce accidents.

"It's interesting, no shift is ever the same after 22 years," Bygd said. "Which is good, 'cause you don't stay for the hours!"

Bygd said that a lot of people who call to report issues via the non-emergency line become frustrated when an emergency call comes through and they're placed on hold, but that's just the nature of the job.

"I don't think a lot of people know what we do in here," Betcher said. "We're not just answering phones, we're entering warrants, updating records and troubleshooting with officers."

Tech savvy, too

Betcher is one of the supervising dispatchers but he's also an unofficial tech guy around the office. Officers will stop in a few times a day to get his help with anything from email to planning a big computer systems rollout.

About the time Goodhue County installed CAD in 1993, Betcher happened to be studying systems management at the technical college. As a matter of right place, right time, Betcher's training has been instrumental in establishing and updating the CAD that dispatchers and officers continue to use in Goodhue County. He's such an expert, in fact, that he moonlights as a software trainer for Computer Information Systems, the CAD developer, and travels the U.S. to help others learn as well.

Looking ahead, Betcher would guess that geographic information systems will become a bigger part of the dispatching world. He anticipates having the ability to layer more information onto a GIS mapping system to better prepare officers on the ground for the types of people and environment they might encounter. He also anticipates more sharing of criminal data across state lines. Right now, he said, one of the largest data sharing groups is made up of nine counties in Texas.

Text-to-911 is another huge development, especially in Minnesota where the service was rolled out in December 2017. Right now a regional center in Olmsted County handles texts for Goodhue, but in May Goodhue dispatchers will begin answering local texts for service.

"I absolutely love coming to work," Betcher said.

"He does," Bygd agreed. "I'm better after a cup of coffee."