Last year, the 12 emergency dispatchers answered, discovered and routed 68,090 calls for service, including 16,906 calls to 911.
Hidden in a dim office in the basement of the Ford County Government Center, emergency dispatchers are the first responders before the first responders, keeping calm, keeping others calm and directing emergency units to scenes even as they are developing a view of what officers, paramedics and firefighters can expect when they arrive.
Three dispatchers per 12-hour shift each monitor four monitors underneath lights dimmed to ease eye strain and a simple printed document tacked to the wall: "Never forget who you are and who you work for."
"Seconds save lives," the Ford County Dispatch website says. "Dispatchers save seconds."
It's not a simple or low-stress job, Communications Director Linda Smith said, and the pace of telecommunications advances has added complexity to it.
The introduction of Internet-based telephones and cellular technology has put a dent in what was a generally straightforward system connecting a telephone number to a location. More than four-fifths of 911 calls in 2013 were from mobile phones.
When a cell call comes in, one of the four screens indicates the location of the cell tower the call passed through. Meanwhile, the dispatcher tries to get more information from the caller to pinpoint the location, careful not to put words in the caller's mind.
"When people are panicking, they'll just say 'yes' to anything," said dispatcher Leanne Hurde. The collected voice on the other end can be awfully convincing. Sometimes callers will remember mile markers they don't quite remember if the dispatcher isn't careful.
As the dispatcher is filling out a form on another screen with known information, the cell tower will attempt to triangulate the latitude and longitude of the caller. Sometimes it's very good, but weak signals, like the one inside the underground dispatch center during a test call, can throw the location.
If a mobile caller hangs up and then doesn’t respond to callbacks, the dispatch has to contact the cell service provider to help locate the phone.
Sometimes it's all about addresses, Smith said, because the GPS can't be counted on to find exact locations. When responders show up, they have to be able to identify the street number.
"Your mailman knows where you live, we might not," she said. Everyone should have big, visible numbers on their houses. If a house in the county is off the beaten path, address posts are important.
Last year, the 12 emergency dispatchers answered, discovered and routed 68,090 calls for service in 2013, including 16,906 calls to 911. While employed by the county, the dispatch team handles all of Dodge City's dispatch as well, part of a joint-funding agreement put in place in 1993.
Those calls don't count the 3,333 "other" calls, like accidental dials and notifications, and 93,948 more calls for non-emergencies.
The dispatch center also operates the tornado sirens.
The dispatch has five 911 lines. One of the most stressful times is when the screen lights up after a tornado warning is issued as panicky callers seek information on the storm's location. Flooding the lines means people who need to get through can't.
Weather radios, the Internet and television are the best way to get information about the cyclone, preferably from a safe cover.
The dispatch center also receives the occasional misdial. Hang-ups are treated as emergency calls. If you misdial the emergency number, stay on the line and inform the dispatcher, Smith said.
It takes a new dispatcher between six months to a year to work without direct supervision, Smith said. The job can be stressful and there's a lot to know, Smith said. Small libraries of binders filled with emergency response information written in government-issue jargon line the spaces in between consoles.
Three of the dispatchers are also ham radio operators, which after some disasters across the world has been an essential, last-ditch communications tool for response organizers. The dispatch center has a backup generator and its own water well, and in its kitchen is food and supplies to last for 14 days.
Dispatchers also have to learn how to deal with cranks and obvious non-emergency calls with the same placid, normal tones and skills used on real threats, though they might joke about it after a favored patrol officer is routed to the scene.
The turnover rate is about 35 percent, Smith said, meaning the dispatch center is in permanent training mode. Some, however, have beaten the odds including Hurde, who was demonstrating the process to members of the Local Emergency Planning Committee.
Smith said she jokes with the dispatchers that if they want to leave their jobs, they need to first find and train their replacement.