Mitchell Garner was 17 when he went to pay a traffic ticket in Valley Center (Kansas, USA) and and rather than leaving empty handed he came away with an idea for a potential profession.
The woman who ran the dispatch center at the time asked him if he’d ever thought of being a dispatcher; Garner didn’t know what a dispatcher was. The woman told him to come back when he was 18, and he did just that. Garner started as a dispatcher with the city of Valley Center in 1979, kick-starting a career that’s spanned over 40 years. He stayed with the city of Valley Center for nearly 10 years before starting to work with Sedgwick County Department of Emergency Services (Wichita, Kansas, USA) in 1987.1 Both centers dispatch EMS, fire, and police services.
Since he’s been an emergency dispatcher nearly as long as 911 has been a national number, Garner has seen all sorts of changes. Before web mapping services or even CADs, Garner used map boards that told the dispatchers where responding vehicles were and whether they were on a call or not. Rather than relying on computer equipment to tell him which officers were calling in, Garner got good at recognizing the voices of the responders and lining them up with their badge numbers. Later, there was an update from writing everything by hand to a CAD system and then a transition to a second CAD system.
“It was pretty overwhelming,” Garner admitted. He recalled coming home from training one day and telling his wife that he couldn’t do it. She reassured him that he could and he kept on. Garner said he had lots of support at home, which makes a difference in any job and becomes even more important with one as demanding as emergency dispatch.
Because he recognized the emotional demands of the job could be overwhelming, Garner was a key member in implementing Sedgwick County’s peer support group. Thirty years ago, an emergency dispatcher was on a call with two officers who were ambushed. She worked the entire call, and when she was finished, she was crying. She was told to go down the hall to collect her thoughts and then come back to work. Garner and his colleagues decided to give emergency dispatchers a better way to handle the stress of the job than that. The structure of the support group has changed since its inception—they switched from the mentor model in the 1990s to a statewide peer support team—but the basic function has stayed the same.
“We try to be proactive and recognize when someone takes a bad call or has a bad reaction to one,” Garner said. The peer support group offers one-on-one support, as well as debriefings to give the rest of the story to everyone involved in a large-scale call.
When asked what he would say to dispatchers looking to start their own peer support group, Garner advised reaching out to other agencies who have done something similar to get help. Additionally, be prepared to set aside your own emotions when you’re supporting someone in need. As a dispatcher, you have to be able to put things behind you and move on. Peer supporters have to do the same thing. Drawing on your own experiences helps you be empathetic, but you’ve got to remain neutral so you can help your peer.
What’s his secret to staying in a career where so many people burn out? “The fact that you never know what’s coming next,” Garner said.
Just because he’s retiring doesn’t mean that Garner’s done helping people. He plans to work as a rural mail carrier and won’t be out of the job pool for long.
“I start new employee orientation and training next Monday; I’ll only have a four-day retirement,” he joked.
1 Younger E. “Private Connections: Long-time 911 dispatcher shares strangest, wildest calls.” KSN.com. 2021; March 17. https://www.ksn.com/community/positive-connections/positive-connections-long-time-911-dispatcher-shares-strangest-wildest-calls/ (accessed March 31, 2021).
Becca Barrus is Principal Podcaster for the Journal and Annals of Emergency Dispatch and Response (AEDR). She is a writer and editor, with her work appearing in the Journal and several other Academy publications. She also manages IAED Social Media content. Becca holds a Bachelor’s Degree in English from Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. She worked as a ghostwriter for two years where she wrote four novels and edited several more. Becca’s hobbies include baking and watching baking shows with the intensity of an avid sports fan.