Salute the Badge: Woman shares passion to address Shawnee Co. dispatch shortage

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Dawn Frey became an emergency dispatcher more than 20 years ago by accident.

She says she was working a job that was hot in summer, cold in winter and had her on her feet several hours a day.

"I wanted a place that was climate controlled and I could sit down sometimes," Frey laughs.

While the beginnings at what's now the Shawnee Co. Consolidated Emergency Communications Center were inauspicious, she ended up falling in love.

"I'm an adrenaline junkie and it's always busy, all the time - and helping people. If I go home at the end of the day and I can say I helped one person, that's a good day for me," Frey said.

Frey rose through the ranks to become the center's training manager. These days, she's also sharing her love for the job.

"Anybody who knows me, has known me for more than five minutes, I tell people, 'I dig teaching other people my job.' I love sharing that," Frey said.

Faced with critically low staffing levels in the emergency communications center, Shawnee Co. Sheriff Herman Jones worked with Washburn Tech to launch an emergency communications career program last year, and, in February, the agency started an academy to train new dispatchers needed skills. In the past, they would simply shadow a worker on the job.

Jones tapped Frey to lead the efforts.

"To be handed the whole program - that is a huge responsibility and I am absolutely humbled by the fact that this agency had confidence in me to get that accomplished," Frey said.

Sheriff Jones had no doubts.

"She has compassion for those that are coming into the field and she takes a lot of time to get people to do the right things and train them right," he said. "They see her dedication and the zest that she has about communication. I think she draws them in."

Jones believes they're already seeing a benefit. The agency hired four dispatchers from Washburn Tech's first class. All four have stayed. In the past, they'd see maybe one or two out of a handful of newcomers stick it out.

Plus, the academy gets new hires in the center, answering calls on their own more quickly, with less stress on their colleagues.

"(The employees) can actually take time to train (new hires) instead of having to teach all of those foundational things, which is difficult to do around phone calls and radio traffic," Frey said.

Jones says Frey deserves the praise.

"When I see her, it gives me a smile and and understanding that she is the right person for that position," Jones said.

But, just as she is with her knowledge, Frey is quick to share the credit.

"I have a great bunch of people to work with," she said. "I send (trainees) out with the beginnings but the folks who get them through the finish line and qualified to work independently - those folks have made so much difference and, if it weren't for them, this program would be high and dry."

Because, she says, dispatchers aren't just talking on the phone - they're a lifeline for emergency responders, and the public - every day.

"You're talking to people on their worst day," she said. "To absorb that stress or that feeling from a person and to let them know that, even for just for a minute, it's going to be okay. In the big picture, it might not be okay, they lost a loved one, but somebody was there to hang onto for that phone call, however long that takes."

Shawnee Co. is at 24 full-time dispatchers right now, with two trainees ready to go within a month. They'd like to get up to 38 or more.

You can find information to apply for a Shawnee Co. position at http://www.snco.us/jobs/.

You also can learn about Washburn Tech's emergency communications program by clicking here.