Hero with a Headset: National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week

National Public Safety Telecommunications Week
Published: Apr. 14, 2023 at 5:09 PM CDT
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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - It’s the one call that never goes unanswered. A 911 dispatcher always picks up the phone when you need it most.

As National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week comes to an end this year, meet headset hero Karrie Kerkela who is still answering those calls 25 years later.

“It’s just one of those things where it just absolutely gets in your blood,” said Kerkela, a Brown County telecommunicator. “I read the job description and I thought I could do that so I applied and obviously it worked out because 25 years later, I’m still here.”

So far, Kerkela is estimated to have answered more than 50,000 emergency calls in Brown County, not including the radio dispatches to fellow first responders.

“They don’t have to worry about who’s behind the radio and if they’re paying attention or if they’re doing everything to make their jobs easier and keep them safe,” said Kerkela.

Kerkela said it’s a tough job, but it’s a lifestyle.

“I can’t fathom having done anything else,” said Kerkela.

It’s something Dan Kane, the Door County Emergency Management Director knows all too well.

“I view it less as job and more as a profession and career,” said Kane.

A few months ago, Door County desperately needed dispatchers. Kane came up with a few initiatives that paid off. The county made a financial investment in the profession by increasing pay and recognizing dispatchers as the first, first responders when help is needed.

“You’re part of the team. You are the first chain in that long link of public safety professionals,” said Kane.

Kane said that recognition promoted on billboards, through radio ads and social media blasts led to a 750 percent increase in applications quickly.

“I was shocked myself a little bit,” said Kane. “We took out billboards for three months thinking that this was going to be a longer process and by the end of the first month, we knew we were getting overwhelmed with applicants and so we had to kind of slow it down a little bit.”

Kane said for a long time, many viewed the dispatcher position as a steppingstone to another job in law enforcement. However, Kane said it’s a profession that requires a lot of training, dedication and learned experience that only comes with working in the profession long-term like Kerkela.

“Until you’ve sat in our chair and put on the headset, you have no concept how you can take a domestic violence call or a Child not breathing call and then the next call is someone complaining about their neighbor’s grass is too short and it’s making them look bad,” said Kerkela.

For Kerkela, the headset is a connection to the community, no matter how big or small the need. “A very rewarding job knowing how many people you’ve helped,” said Kerkela. “Even though we don’t always know the outcome of how we’ve helped them, we know we did our part.”

Telecommunicators Appreciation Week is ending, but it is an ongoing issue to appreciate the 9-1-1 dispatchers that work long hours in a stressful environment.