Doni Whitecotton of Granite Shoals, the communications manager for the Llano County Sheriff’s Office, in the telecommunications hub at the Law Enforcement Center on Texas 16 west of the Llano River. Staff photo by Suzanne Freeman
They are the first of the first responders, the initial problem solvers in what emergency managers call the chain of survival. Dispatchers in Llano and Burnet counties work for their respective sheriffs, taking 911 calls, gathering information, and deciding which services should be sent where in what many times are life-or-death situations. And they do it all simultaneously within seconds of answering a call with “What is your emergency?”
“We are the central hub of it all; we coordinate and command,” said Granite Shoals resident Doni Whitecotton, communications manager for the Llano County Sheriff’s office. “We coordinate what units go to what scene and what additional resources they need.”
That could include air flight service, which entails setting up a landing spot and lining up the personnel needed to get the chopper loaded and back in the air.
“We do all that and without a visual,” Whitecotton said. “The phone and the radio are our tools.”
Not everyone is cut out for the job, said Llano County Emergency Management Coordinator Gilbert Bennett of Horseshoe Bay. He has 42 years’ experience as a firefighter and said dispatching is something he doesn’t think he could ever do.
“It takes a certain personality to be a dispatcher,” he said. “You have to maintain radio integrity during the call, keeping your caller calm, while also gathering information and relaying it to responders. You have to be strong in the sense that you know you can handle whatever’s coming.”
What’s coming can include anything from a call about a dog that won’t stop barking or a fatal accident in a secluded area.
Some of the most hectic times are major weather events. In February, when streets iced over for a couple of days, falls kept dispatchers and other first responders busy. A year earlier, during Winter Storm Uri, dispatchers couldn’t even make it in to work, so those on duty had to sleep in the sheriff’s office, working double and triple shifts.
“Dispatch is one of those jobs that someone has to be there 24/7, 365 days,” Whitecotton said. “If somebody calls in sick or can’t get to work because roads are closed, someone else has to stay and do the job. My team is great that way. They are loyal to the people of this county.”
On one recent April day, Johnnie Duke of western Llano County and Celeste Kroamer of Mason sat before their multiple computer screens, headsets on, fingers flying over keyboards as they simultaneously talked to callers, sent out information to responders, and took interview questions from a reporter.
“A lot of times, it can get overwhelming if you have several calls coming in at the same time,” Duke said. “It’s a satisfying job. You really feel like you’re helping somebody.”
Duke has 12½ years’ experience as a dispatcher. To keep in shape (she’s at a desk for 12 hours at a time) she hikes, including planned treks along the Appalachian Trail. She’s covered the trail through Georgia and most of North Carolina so far.
Kroamer always wanted to be a law enforcement officer but worked dispatch until she was old enough to join the academy. She served many years as a sheriff’s deputy in Mason County before going back into telecommunications.
“Starting on this side of the radio helped me when I was out there, and being out there helps me in here,” she said.
The hardest part for her is dealing with upset callers who won’t stop talking long enough to provide the information needed to send them the proper help. She offered very specific advice for those on the other end of a 911 call with a dispatcher.
“Know your location, state the type of emergency, what kind of emergency response you need, and stay on the line while we get all the information from you to keep you safe,” she said. “Know the highway you are on, the mile markers, anything you see: gates, colors.”
In rural areas, finding a location can be a challenge.
“We can narrow it down by time,” she said. “How long ago did you leave, how fast were you driving, what have you seen along the way,” she said. “Situational awareness is helpful.”
Llano County currently has three dispatcher positions open;Burnet County has four.
Qualified applicants must have a high school diploma or equivalent and do the necessary training to be licensed as a dispatcher and, in Llano County, as a jailer. New hires have a year in which to complete all of the training and licensing while on the job.
“I believe dispatch is a passion,” Whitecotton said. “If you have a passion for it in your heart, you will excel at it. It’s not a job that can just be a job.”
Click here for telecommunications and other job openings in Llano County. For jobs in Burnet County, click here.