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Out of cigarettes? Worried about birds? Don't call 911, say county dispatchers

Tele-communicator Tom Barthman mans one of the stations in St. Croix County's Emergency Communications Center. The center handles 911 calls for law enforcement agencies, fire departments and EMS agencies from around the county. Photo by Judy Wiff

St. Croix County 911 dispatchers may not have heard it all, but they've heard a lot.

While trained to deal with life-and-death emergencies, the dispatchers have fielded calls from a man who wanted cigarettes delivered to his house, a woman worried about seagulls and people wondering if the tornado siren they can hear is meant for them.

Casey Swetlik, director of the county's Emergency Communications Center, has compiled a recording of strange calls his 911 center has gotten.

In one instance, a night caller kept insisting to be put through to the Hudson Police Department.

The dispatcher patiently draws information from the man until the guy blurts out: "What I need is a pack of cigarettes. I have no vehicle."

He says he can't call the store because he knows they won't deliver, but he thinks the police will.

"Wait a minute here. You called 911 for a pack of cigarettes?" asks the dispatcher incredulously.

Yes, replies the man meekly.

"Have a real nice day," says the dispatcher as he disconnects the call.

Gulls in parking lot

Then there was the woman who called from the Menard's parking lot because a flock of seagulls had landed there. She wanted the dispatcher to send out an officer to escort the birds to water.

Or the woman who when the dispatcher asked, "What's the problem ma'am?" launched into a story of ailments she'd endured after a plane trip with her sister seven years earlier and tossed in details about her mother's diabetes.

Long story short, the woman had seen a doctor at the St. Croix County Health Center awhile back and wanted to consult him but didn't know his name or phone number.

When the dispatcher suggested the woman call the Health Center, the woman asked him to look up the number for her.

Calls drain resources

When a dispatcher answers a 911 call, he or she has no idea of the magnitude of the emergency on the other end of the call, said Swetlik.

It's possible, he said, that a dispatcher giving CPR instructions would put that call on hold not knowing if the second incoming call is for a greater emergency.

"We get people calling 911 asking why the (tornado) sirens are going off," said Swetlik. Or, he said, asking which side of the street they should be parking on that night.

"It taps our resources," said Swetlik.

Swetlik said there are appropriate numbers to call for non-emergencies.

Those multi-line numbers might come into the same call center, but staff knows those are information calls and can set priorities accordingly.

The St. Croix center has nine 911 lines, three for cell phone calls and six land lines. Sixteen hours a day, the lines are staffed by three dispatchers. Four dispatchers work the "night power shift."

Swetlik said he advises dispatchers to listen carefully before dismissing a call.

He used the woman who called about the seagulls as an example.

"This isn't a lady upset about seagulls," he said. "This is a lady that has some issues."

Listening to her and diffusing the situation is preferable to setting her off driving on the road where she could cause injury to herself or someone else, said Swetlik.

Emergency call centers created some of their own problem years ago when they taught children and adults to dial 911, said Swetlik. Because it's so easy to use, the public latched on to the number as a convenience.

Now, he said, people need to be taught that the number is for real emergencies.

Still, he said, county communications centers can also be information centers.

"We can provide information on all sorts of things," said Swetlik, describing his center as "a go-between agency."

To ask for information about locked cars, winter parking rules and reporting minor accidents, people should call the appropriate administrative phone number, said Swetlik.

Those numbers, which are listed in phone books, are (800) 281-3478 for St. Croix County in general, (715) 386-4701 for the Hudson area, (715) 246-6131 for New Richmond and (715) 684-2112 for the Baldwin/Hammond area.