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Dispatchers help keep community safe as the first 'first-responders'

Dispatchers help keep community safe as the first 'first-responders'
Posted at 10:16 AM, Apr 20, 2024

HELENA — When you call 911, before police, deputies, firefighters or EMTs arrive to help you, you talk with a 911 dispatcher. There are 14 of these highly-trained men and women who work in shifts to help keep people in Lewis & Clark County safe.

“They are constantly busy,” Helena Police Department Sgt. Noal Petty said. “They are truly the first responders to this.”

The dispatchers at the Helena-Lewis and Clark County 911 center handle calls for the Helena and East Helena police departments, the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office, three ambulance services, the Helena Fire Department and 16 volunteer fire departments.

In 2023, the 911 center fielded 124,764 calls. When the phone rings, dispatchers never know what is on the other end of the line. They are prepared to talk people through what may be the scariest situation of their life—explaining things like how to do CPR, or helping the caller get somewhere safe in their house during a dangerous situation.

“If you are looking for a group of people that are dedicated and full of compassion, you will find those people here,” Helena-Lewis & Clark County 911 Center operations manager Zach Slattery said.

Lewis and Clark Co. dispatchers
When the phone rings, dispatchers never know what's on the other end of the line.

Along with walking callers through stressful situations, dispatchers work to get information to pass along to first responders and ensure callers get the help they need.

“When dispatching an officer to a call, there are so many dynamics to the call—where it is, what’s going on, what officer is going to go,” Petty said. “All the details that are coming in over the phone, they have to weed through those and give those to the officer as officers are responding, and that’s just the verbal side of things.”

Dispatchers also type details into the computer for first responders to see.

“It is a very difficult job, it’s not a job that anyone can just walk in and do,” Slattery said. “It takes a very special person.”

In Lewis and Clark County, dispatchers go through multiple layers of training. They go through a minimum of 16 weeks of on-the-job training with an experienced, certified trainer, a six-week course at the Montana Law Enforcement Academy, CPR training and Montana emergency medical dispatch protocol training.

The extensive training doesn’t just help dispatchers do their jobs, it also helps first responders in the field keep people in Lewis and Clark County safe.

“I have the greatest things to say about our dispatchers,” Petty said. “Our dispatchers are amazing.”