Wyoming: Borrowed personnel will beef up dispatch staff. Residents are urged to text, not call.
The Teton County Sheriff’s Office Communications Center is the lifeline for valley residents. At least two dispatchers are always there answering emergency calls at any given time.
But with large crowds expected on and around Aug. 21 for the total solar eclipse, dispatchers worry that cellphone-dependent people won’t be able to reach 911 during an emergency.
“I will be very surprised if we don’t miss some type of emergency because somebody can’t get through,” Communications Manager Terri Sherman said. “That’s been in the back of everybody’s minds, and we’re kind of afraid of it.”
Teton County public safety agencies launched new upgraded software July 18. It’s a system Sherman is confident in, unlike the old technology.
“In dispatch it would shut down all the time, and of course it would always do it in the middle of a multi-injury collision,” Sherman said. “We knew pretty early on that what we had two and a half years ago was not going to absorb the eclipse very well.”
The new Zuercher software provides computer-aided dispatch, mapping, records management, evidence, mobile data, warrant tracking and more.
“What we have now really supports this community, even the normal amount of tourists we have,” Sherman said.
With recent resignations Teton County Communications is understaffed. To make sure there are enough dispatchers during the eclipse, Sherman is borrowing personnel from Teton County sheriff’s investigations and Lincoln County. She has been training them since May to get them up to speed, she said.
“They are working their full-time jobs and spending four or five hours with me at night or on Saturday mornings,” Sherman said. “Our jobs are so technical that it takes six months to even train somebody to be on a terminal by themselves.”
There are four stations in dispatch with two portable radio laptops. Handheld portable radios will be nearby for backup.
In case phone calls don’t go through, Teton County officials have been encouraging residents to text 911 because it uses less bandwidth than a phone call.
Aside from potential technology problems, Sherman is trying to make sure all dispatchers are within a few-mile radius in case of traffic gridlock.
“We’ve opened up our doors,” Sherman said. “I have two bikes. The dispatcher from Lincoln County is staying with me.”
Sherman lives 8 miles from the dispatch center.
“It will be quite a ride,” Sherman said. “But it’s better than not being able to get here.”
And she’s prepared to sleep in the communications center if necessary.
“I’ve got a couple of sleeping bags,” Sherman said. “We’re just going to throw them in here if we have to. It is what it is.”
Although they can’t step away from emergency calls, Sherman said they’re going to do their best to allow some dispatchers to go outside to see the eclipse.
“It lasts about two minutes,” she said. “They can run out to see it.”
The communications center has a small window, but it’s facing the wrong way.
“We’re going to make sure everybody has glasses and at least go out there as long as they can,” she said.
But not all of them will get to see it. Sherman said she’ll likely man a dispatch station during the eclipse because she remembers seeing the last one in 1979, when she was about 10 years old, in Provo, Utah.
“Most of us here are so dedicated to the community and our jobs,” she said. “We love what we do. We don’t want anything to fall through the cracks. It’s not that important to them. It’s a novelty to see.”
After two and a half years preparing for a two-minute-long phenomenon, Sherman said it will be a rewarding experience if it’s a successful event.
Wyoming police Handler David Hodges and his K-9 partner Pepper
“We’ve worked really hard to train those with less experience to come up to a level where it’s not going to burn them out for this one little weekend,” Sherman said. “I think it will be incredible.”
The eclipse will be Sherman’s last big event as a dispatch supervisor in Teton County. Her last day on the job is Aug. 23. She starts a position in Converse County on Sept. 1.
“I wanted a month in between, but with the eclipse I just couldn’t do that,” she said.
As prepared as she feels the team is for the eclipse, it’s the months after that she’s worried about.
“I want this center to be successful,” she said. “Once I leave they’ll be less than half staffed. That’s a scary prospect.”
This version of the article has been edited to reflect the official directive that people in distress should call 911 first, and if that doesn’t work, then text.