At the ready, dispatcher takes all calls seriously

By Katherine Wartell

Thinking she was taking Mylanta, an elderly woman in Riley County once ingested a spoonful of silver polish. When she realized her mistake, she called 911 in a panic.

It was 3 a.m. and Wayne Colson answered her call.

People like to say that every second counts in an emergency. Every word matters and every moment of inaction means something. Colson recognized that it wasn’t necessarily life or death for this woman, but he doesn’t like to rank emergencies, so he listened to her and placed her in contact with the hospital.

Colson is a dispatch supervisor at the Riley County Police Department. With roughly 28 years under his belt, he is the most senior dispatcher there.

Colson, who is from Randolph, graduated from Baker University in 1982 with a degree in mathematics, but double-digit unemployment inspired him to apply for a position at the RCPD.

A brash 22-year-old, he said the job didn’t scare him. He knew what he had to do, and now, he said, when he sits in his chair, he is in control of his world. That’s just as well because there is no preparing for who is going to make a 911 call.

When a 15-year-old boy drowned in Tuttle Creek in 2008, Colson took that call. When a man called from the Rocky Ford Fishing Area threatening to take his own life and then did, Colson took that call, too.

A couple of months ago, Colson said a woman called 911 and then hung up. He called her back, but she said the call had only been a mistake. He didn’t believe her and persisted, asking her questions that required a simple yes or no.

He was able to determine that the woman was involved in a domestic incident with her husband, who was suicidal. She told him that he was sitting in his truck with a long gun. Colson was able to dispatch officers and get the man to the hospital.

Colson knows that as a dispatcher, you have to be able to remain calm and you have to be able to multi-task. As soon as he answers a call, Colson is already thinking about which authorities he is going to notify and send so that not a moment is wasted while he asks the caller probing questions.

He’ll then stay on the call to help calm the caller and attempt to ease the situation before the officers and emergency personnel arrive.

Now that consolidated dispatch is in effect, RCPD dispatchers are also taking emergency calls for Riley County EMS and Manhattan Fire Department. As part of this, they are being certified on how to coach callers through CPR, the Heimlich and childbirth. Colson said he has yet to coach a woman through delivery, but he has coached someone through a stroke.

Colson is one of 23 dispatchers, eight of them in training. Each dispatcher must complete six to eight weeks of book training and six weeks of radio training, as well as certifications. 

His advice to new dispatchers is to treat the callers the way they would want to be treated. “If someone calls with a non-emergency, it was an emergency to them, so listen to them,” he said.

He also tells them to take a breather every now and then, without forgetting their responsibilities. “It’d be nice to know if in 15 minutes, an armed robbery is going to happen [but that’s not how it works],” he said. “We have to stay alert.”

In 28 years, Colson has seen quite a few changes in the job, including an improved 911 system. He said at one point, there was no electronic display that showed the caller’s address, phone number and GPS information and dispatchers only had a call-back option. And in the old days, he said, dispatchers had to individually telephone people about a fire.

Colson works the day shift now from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. During the day there tends to be more accidents and people reporting parking and animal control issues or people who want to vent.

He is used to being part counselor, part negotiator and part dispatcher.

Once his shift is over, Colson said it takes him about 30 minutes to an hour to wind down from the day and transition back into a normal person.

“[At work], your guards are up all the time,” he said. But, he said, he feels like he is part of a family at the RCPD.

Colson, a father of two, said that when his own father died, his colleagues did a lot for him. “You don’t feel like you’re in it by yourself,” he said.

As a dispatcher, Colson said there’s not a typical day. “Some don’t seem to stop, they just go on.”

He said there are calls he feels good about it, calls he can’t do anything about and calls that wake him right up.

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