ROCKFORD — Sporting a pink diamond-studded mask, a pink cape and a smile, Melissa "Momma" Erickson brought a little levity Tuesday to a stressful job at the city’s 911 center.
She and her fellow dispatchers were encouraged to take part in Super Hero/First Responder Day and dress up as super heroes.
The hero theme is part of a weeklong list of daily events to mark National Public Safety Telecommunicator Week.
For Erickson, the recognition is appreciated but it’s not why she took the job.
"It's a fast-paced environment, and I love it," she said.
"It's very rewarding. There's never a dull moment. There's always something new. It’s comforting to know that you are there to send help to those who need help. If they are having a crisis, we are there to help and to try to calm them down and to get them help as quickly as we can."
Erickson is OK being the calm voice heard on a police and fire scanner that few can put a face to.
And she knows she plays a vital role in every emergency call she fields.
"We are the glue that really holds it all together between the police, fire and EMS," she said.
"We gather the necessary information to relay to first responders as quickly as we can."
Erickson and her colleagues don’t hesitate to pick up the phone to talk to people who might be experiencing the worst day of their lives. The most challenging part of the job for her, however, is not always knowing how a call ended.
"I think the most difficult calls for me are the ones involving children, hysterical moms calling because their child is not breathing or calls that affect the elderly," she said.
Telecommunicator Week comes at a welcome time for many dispatchers. For weeks they have been fielding phone calls from people concerned about possible symptoms of COVID-19, a potentially deadly respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus. The global pandemic has brought about more change in recent weeks than dispatchers with 20 years or more have experienced in their entire careers.
Among the changes: Dispatchers now enter the 911 center through a designated door where their temperatures are taken before the start of their 12-hour shifts.
They then proceed to disinfect their workstations. Their temperatures are taken again midway through the shift.
Todd Stockburger, 911 Division administrator, said the protocols are meant to help keep the dispatchers healthy and the 911 center functioning.
"If a dispatcher were to get (COVID-19) and bring it to a relatively small space where there are 10 to 12 people in fairly close contact with each other throughout a 12-hour shift, that would certainly be problematic," he said.
As for keeping emergency personnel and the public safe, dispatchers as a matter of protocol are now required to ask callers if they are exhibiting one of three symptoms: fever, cough or breathing difficulties.
"The common denominator is the fever," Stockburger said of potential COVID-19 patients.
"We want to give those first responders on the street a head start and keep them safe."
Winnebago County Sheriff Gary Caruana called his department’s 911 dispatchers "unsung heroes."
He said meals will be delivered to them. Treadmills will be installed in the 911 center to allow dispatchers a chance to do more than just stand up at their desks during a shift.
"This is just a way to let them know they are appreciated," he said.
"You know there's that stat they are tracking for 90% of calls to be answered in 10 seconds or less.
"Well, they are at 92 to 95%. They do an outstanding job."
Brenda Ganz, 46, has been a dispatcher with the Sheriff’s Department for 14 years.
She likes the fact that each year National Telecommunicator Week brings more attention to a job she enjoys but also demands time away from those she loves.
"Twelve hours together is more than a lot of time some people spend with their own families," she said.
Chris Green: email@example.com; @chrisfgreen