Answering the call: New 911 director seeks progress, top technology
CARO – Jon Ramirez has been the director of Tuscola County Central Dispatch for about one year.
And he’s been busy.
While focusing on a number of improvements, a couple of the most important things he’s been working on are making Tuscola County a front-runner technologically among dispatch offices, and ensuring that his staff members know how important they are to the first-responder chain.
“We are a part of the process all the way from the first call until closure, and sometimes through litigation for criminal cases,” Ramirez said. “And I want my employees to know they are important and valued for the job they do.”
Ramirez knows a bit about how the first-responder system works. The 44-year-old Unionville man was a deputy for the Tuscola County Sheriff’s Office for about 14 years, before stepping down to take the 911 director job in January 2022. He replaced Sandy Nielson, who worked for Tuscola Central Dispatch for 32 years, the last seven as director.
“I’ve worked closely with all first-responding agencies,” Ramirez said. “And that has helped me with this job. I came in with open arms and an open mind and ready to learn.”
When someone dials 911 for an emergency, the call is answered by someone in the central dispatch office in the county of the call’s origin. In Tuscola County, that office is in Caro.
Ramirez said Tuscola Central Dispatch employs 13 people – himself, two supervisors and 10 dispatchers. At present time, the office is fully staffed, which is not always the case and something Ramirez strived to accomplish. A couple of former employees that had left the job have returned recently.
“I missed this so much,” said dispatcher Paige Rushlo, who worked at the office for about five years before leaving. She recently came back after a nine-month period working elsewhere.
“There’s nowhere else I’ve felt so at home,” Rushlo said.
Tuscola County Central Dispatch employees generally work 12-hour shifts, from 4 to 4, 8 to 8 or 12 to 12.
There are normally three dispatchers in the office – one answering calls, another communicating with first-responder units and the third assisting with both aspects of the process.
“This is the first time we’ve been fully staffed in a while,” Ramirez said. “Traditionally, there is a lot of turnover and that’s something I wanted to fix.”
“The atmosphere has definitely changed for the better,” Rushlo said. “There’s nothing quite like this place. Plus, we have a pretty good support system here.”
A support system is important, Ramirez said, in an occupation where employees deal with life-or-death situations nearly every day.
“You have to have a lot of positive attributes to do this job,” he said. “You need to have a strong support system of family and friends, because this job can take a toll on you.”
Sometimes, Ramirez said, staff members are tasked with coordinating support for a loved one, and must stay professional no matter the situation. In some instances, callers have committed suicide while on the phone with a dispatcher.
Some dispatch employees, such as Ramirez, who is a volunteer for ACW (Akron-Columbia-Wisner) Unionville Fire Department, are first-responders in their free time as well.
Dispatcher Trace Lopez is fire chief of the Elmwood Township/Gagetown Fire Department.
Like Rushlo, Lopez said helping others is in his DNA.
“I like helping people,” Lopez said. “That’s why I do this and the fire department. Like Paige said, it’s almost a calling, like you were put here to help. I feel like this is what I’m meant to do.”
Lopez is another former employee who returned to the job. He left for five years before coming back.
On a January afternoon, Lopez sits at his desk, answering 911 calls and commanding six, 32-inch computer screens in front of him. Each of the four stations in the central dispatch office are set up the same way. In a matter of minutes, he answers two 911 calls, but whoever is on the other end does not speak.
The calls originated from Caro Walmart and Cass City High School, and were determined to be mistake calls.
On one of the screens Lopez observes, there is a map of Tuscola County with multiple boundary lines, which separate the county into townships, fire department jurisdictions and ambulance areas. It also shows exactly where ongoing incidents involving central dispatch are happening.
Technology, Ramirez said, is improving at a record pace.
“Plans used to call for technology upgrades every 10 years or so,” he said. “Now it’s every two or three years. And we’re one of the front-runners in the state in staying up to date.”
When Ramirez arrived, Tuscola County Central Dispatch was what the director calls a “legacy 911” office.
“You called 911, you got a dispatcher, we dispatched the call,” he said. “I think we’ve taken great strides in becoming a next generation, or ‘Next Gen 911.’”
When first arriving, the office’s tower, located just behind the building, received a makeover, with new orange and white paint and a switchover to LED lighting, as required by the Federal Aviation Administration.
“We are also the first county in the state to receive new technology from (ADT Security), the alarm company,” Ramirez said. “When a burglar alarm is tripped, it automatically sends a message to 911. It skips the call center so it eliminates the middleman.”
Tuscola County Central Dispatch utilizes Prepared Live, a program allowing real-time information to be sent to dispatch via a cellphone camera. With this technology, which the office has used a bit in the past couple of months but plans to utilize more in 2023, a link is sent to a caller’s text message inbox. The caller then clicks the link and dispatchers have access to the phone’s camera.
“It shows us what’s happening and it protects the caller,” Ramirez said. “It blacks out the phone too so you can’t tell that the camera is on.”
Ramirez said the Tuscola County office has utilized the technology following reports of structure fires, vehicle crashes and to help find a hunter who went missing last fall.
Using the same technology will allow first responders immediate access to photos in a missing person case.
“The days of finding an old picture are gone,” Ramirez said. “Everyone has pictures of loved ones on their phone. This technology allows you to select a photo out of your album and send it to (dispatch). We can then distribute it to an officer in the field or generate it to social media.”
A big issue Ramirez has been working to tackle is bringing all the county’s ambulance services to follow a single, county-wide protocol. For example, he said, the county’s five ambulance companies – Mobile Medical Response, Akron-Columbia-Wisner Ambulance Service, Marlette EMS, Mayville Area Ambulance Service and the service that covers Arbela Township – have different protocols for performing life-saving techniques on a patient on scene.
Some ambulance services require emergency medical technicians (EMTs) to spend a certain amount of time working on a patient, while others require personnel to take the patient straight to a local hospital.
Ramirez said he’s been working with MMR Tuscola County supervisor Phil Petzold on addressing the issue.
Public outreach, which includes presentations at local schools, is important, Ramirez said, and is high on his list of things to do as central dispatch director.
“He’s made a lot of big improvements,” Lopez said. “And it helps not only us, but the citizens of Tuscola County.”
Ramirez – a lifelong Tuscola County resident and 1997 Caro High School graduate – said it was difficult to leave the sheriff’s office, but receives some of the same satisfaction as Central Dispatch director.
“Just like a firefighter or my time as a police officer, once this gets into your system it’s hard to let go,” he said. “You become addicted to it.”