Montrose, CO — It’s no secret that emergency dispatchers have a tough job. When people dial 911, it is up to the men and women of WestCO Dispatch to connect those in distress with emergency services. Help arrives for those in need, sometimes with only moments to spare, and the rewards of being a dispatcher are solidified.
WestCO has been operating from their new operations center, located in the annex building on the campus of the Montrose County Justice Center, since November 1. WestCO moved from its former location at the Montrose Police Department when asked to take over all services previously provided by Montrose Regional Dispatch Center to form one primary dispatch center for an entire region.
The new digs at WestCO are bigger and brighter with large windows, open space, offices for training, and a bigger kitchen for dispatchers to cook meals. Best of all, the center is large enough to accommodate the new recruits its executive director says are needed to fill current openings.
Along with the new operations center, WestCO increased its services by 40 percent, now providing dispatch services for 19 agencies spread out over a three-county region. Those agencies include the Montrose County Sheriff’s Office, Montrose Police, Montrose Fire and EMS, Olathe Police, Olathe Fire and EMS, Ouray County Sheriff’s Office, Ouray Police Department, Ridgway Marshal, Black Canyon National Park, Olathe Fire and EMS, Ouray Fire, Ouray EMS, Ridgway Fire, Loghill Fire, Nucla/Naturita Fire and EMS, Paradox Fire and EMS, and Montrose Regional Airport Fire and Rescue.
“It’s the hub, the information center to everything that happens in community safety,” said WestCO Executive Director Mandy Stollsteimer.
Dispatchers work rotating shifts 24 hours a day, seven days a week for these agencies. Dispatchers are the link between the community they serve, its residents and the resources that are there to help.
Via emergency phone calls or text messages, dispatchers ascertain what people need and what level of distress they are in. In some cases only law enforcement officers are needed, in others, dispatchers instruct callers on how to provide medical assistance like CPR while first responders are en route.
Sometimes dispatchers help keep people calm when they call talking about suicide. It is a wide-reaching public safety role that involves being a conduit for people and first responders, placing it among the most exciting, challenging and rewarding public service jobs.
“It’s a calling, like in law enforcement, it’s a way to serve the public,” Stollsteimer said. "The 911 professional is a profession that is not well known to the public. We are a highly skilled profession in demand, however, not a lot of people know it is a career path that is very rewarding and provides a civic service. You really make a difference and an impact for public safety."
Stollsteimer said people as young as 18 can apply to become a dispatcher. And with the right training and guidance, becoming a WestCO dispatcher is a career path that can lead to greater opportunity.
Dispatcher Kari McClanahan said she began her career after filling out numerous job applications around Montrose. She now has spent the past 12 years as an emergency dispatcher in Montrose.
"I just filled out a job application. I was 21 and I didn’t know what it (911 dispatcher) was all about," McClanahan said.
McClanahan said she "loves the job" because it provides a window into law enforcement that is fascinating to her. The adrenaline of working on real "life or death" situations is also something that was alluring to her.
"I couldn’t see myself doing anything else," McClanahan said. "And just the sense of knowing that I helped someone, and they don’t have to necessarily know that I helped them."
(Dispatcher Kari McClanahan works at her terminal at the WestCO Dispatch center.)
Stollsteimer began her career as a 911 dispatcher. Following years of promotions, training, and more education, she has risen to become the director of WestCO. While she admits the past reputation of a dispatcher was someone who was overworked and had poor employee benefits, that she said, has all changed.
“We have programs to help with stress and nutrition to help with the mind, body, and soul of our dispatchers. Our goal is to have happy and healthy professionals,” Stollsteimer said, adding that the starting wage for a 911 dispatcher at WestCO is $45,000 a year.
The center's new employee lounge is a large space where dispatchers can cook and eat meals, or simply step away for a break. The biggest differences from the center’s previous location are the large windows that allow dispatchers to view wildlife or catch a glimpse of the mountains.
"It’s fantastic (with) the natural light coming through the windows," Stollsteimer said. "It’s very therapeutic."
The WestCO center now has seven dispatch terminals as opposed to four, nearly doubling the space for new personnel. Stollsteimer said the center has several openings and welcomes anyone interested in becoming a dispatcher to come in for a "sit in," where people can watch dispatchers in action and get to know the job better.
Stollsteimer said the new space allows first responders and law enforcement to come visit and get to know the dispatchers that serve them. In the future, Stollsteimer said, the center is large enough to host training events involving many different dispatch and first-responder agencies.
In the meantime, WestCO dispatchers maintain a high level of readiness so when the residents of Montrose, or the greater region, dial 911 they will speak with someone who is ready to help.
For more information about WestCO visit www.WCRDC.net. The public may also reach WestCO via phone call or text on the non-emergency number 970-249-9110.