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Wis. hospital closure places pressure on dispatchers

Chippewa County dispatchers say the St. Joseph’s Hospital closure ties up resources, placing them on calls longer while waiting for first responders


HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chippewa Falls.

HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospital

The Chippewa Herald

CHIPPEWA COUNTY, Wis.—Employees at the Chippewa County Emergency Communications Center are feeling the effect of the St. Joseph’s Hospital closure, and open staff positions at the dispatch facility have made the situation even more daunting.

Since the local hospital closed on March 22, ambulance trips from Chippewa County to Eau Claire for emergency medical aid take longer. Law enforcement officers are making trips to Eau Claire, Stanley or other locations for blood draws on suspects believed to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs that used to be done at St. Joseph’s. The longer trips impact dispatchers who coordinate the activity of first responders.

“Besides that, we’ve seen an increase in non-emergency transports where people before maybe could get a shared ride or taxi ride up to St. Joe’s for an appointment or a commercial clinic for an appointment,” said Tamee Foldy, Chippewa County Emergency Communications Center director. “Since they don’t have that option now and are going into Eau Claire, they’re calling for an ambulance and basically they just need a ride.”

Resources tied up longer

Emergency responders have decreased availability as turnaround times on calls have increased. Call volume is expected to increase because of warm weather and tourism.

“We may stay on calls longer while callers wait for responders to arrive. We may see more of that as it gets busy this summer and more people come into the area,” Foldy said.

To compound matters, the center is not fully staffed, placing added strain on the county’s 911 dispatchers.

The agency’s staff is managing the workload by leaning on their training and working overtime.

“We’re here. We’re good in a crisis, and we make sure every shift is fully staffed. I do not think our work is suffering because we are professionals. We still have three people taking calls every shift. They are just working a lot of overtime right now,” Foldy said.

Critical work

The Chippewa County Emergency Communications Center is staffed 24 hours a day with dispatchers who are trained to answer 911 telephone calls, as well as dispatch law enforcement, fire and emergency medical services.

Dispatchers gather critical information from calls and relay information to responding units in the field. The team of dispatchers works in partnership with all of Chippewa County’s public safety agencies to ensure the safety and quality of life for residents, businesses and visitors.

“We have some of the best, most skilled people in this center,” Foldy said. “It’s a big job, but I am really proud of the work we do and think our staff are amazing.”

The Emergency Communications Center is seeking new staff. Because of open positions, many staff are recording a significant amount of overtime.

Wade Davis is a dispatch supervisor at the Emergency Communications Center and said while the organization has a handle on the workload, upcoming events will stretch the team.

“There’s a lot of overtime. A lot of hours right now. So we’re trying to disperse it as evenly as possible so it’s not overwhelming as of yet,” he said. “But we have like a bunch of music fests coming, technology days and things at the fairgrounds that we need to staff with dispatchers just for the events. So that’s gonna throw a little bit of a kink in things.”

‘You really make a difference here’

Davis said despite the overtime, he loves the work.

“I just like making a difference, like you really make a difference here,” he said. “There’s not a day that I think I’ve worked where I didn’t go home and think, ‘Wow, I literally changed people’s lives today.’”

Foldy said the center has seven full-time staff with two people in training. Another six part-time staff are employed by the agency. Ideally, the center would have 14 full-time dispatchers. Three people are required to work for each 12-hour shift.

“We have 14 positions for full-time staff. Those are definitely not filled. We’re always trying to recruit people,” Foldy said. “It’s just a different skill set here. It’s almost like a unique personality, you know, where you could do 25 things at once. Some people can, some people can’t.”

Foldy said the shift length can be a factor that deters good applicants.

“We work 12-hour shifts and so a lot of employees find child care can be really hard to manage with that timespan,” she said.

Limited-term employees get to pick their hours, and they are limited to a certain number of hours per year.

“Whereas our full-time staff is not limited. If there’s overtime, they can be forced in that aspect because they don’t have that cap on their hours,” Foldy said.

Multitasking a must

Everyone who works at the center is cross-trained.

Some 911 dispatch centers have specialized call takers who take a call and enter it in the computer program before handing it off to a dispatcher who dispatches first responders, but Chippewa County Emergency Communications Center employees handle both tasks.

“We’re the call takers/dispatchers so they take the call, dispatch the call. It’s then transferred over where one of the other dispatchers whose main responsibility that day is radio traffic, takes the radio traffic and continues to answer that,” Foldy said.

The communications center is the emergency and non-emergency contact for all of Chippewa County’s first responders. The center dispatches all law enforcement, EMS and fire agencies within the county.

That means multitasking is a must for 911 dispatchers.

“It’s doing 20 things at once. People call because they’ve got something that they need to deal with. We have to remember that this is the worst thing in their life at this moment,” Foldy said. “That’s the worst time in their life right now. And so this is very important.”

In addition to staying organized, multitasking and being cool under pressure, dispatchers need to be able to handle lots of computer work.

“The computer is our radio. We’re in the middle of four screens that work together,” she said.

More than 911 calls

The only dispatch center in Chippewa County handles all area 911 calls, but it does much more than that.

“In addition to handling all 911 and all administrative calls, the smaller police departments will forward calls here after hours. So we handle all of those,” Foldy said. “Some of the municipalities, like the electric and the water, that kind of thing, their calls are transferred here after hours, some of the public health stuff comes here after hours, the district attorney’s office after hours also comes here.”

During storms or power outages, the dispatch center is bustling.

“We’re contacting electric companies, phone companies, cable companies, tow trucks, all of that goes through here. So we do a little bit of everything,” she said. “And I think we see that if people don’t know who to call, they call us.”

Dispatchers also use the mobile command center to be on scene at fairs and festivals in the area, Foldy said. That way they can oversee a large number of calls coming in from one location.

Davis said the hardest part of the job has been the noticeable increase in mental health crises handled by the center.

“Probably within the last five years the amount of mental health cases that we’re dealing with, it just rains on you. It can be overwhelming,” he said. “You know, maybe twice a week we take a call from somebody that’s actually happy. Otherwise, you’re dealing with people’s worst days.”

Davis said the group of dispatchers does a lot to support each other.

“Peer support is key. My best friend works in the building, and we spend time together after tough days,” he said. “A lot of us do. It’s a special group with special skills, and we get what the others go through. It’s very rewarding work.”

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