ANSWERING THE CALL

Emergency dispatcher receives awards for excellence, saving a life

Emergency dispatcher Mike Larson of the Negaunee Regional Communications Center recently received the Lifesaving Award from the Michigan State Police. He is the first emergency dispatcher in the state to receive the award for providing CPR instructions over the telephone, which resulted in saving a life. (Photo provided by Mike Larson)

By Joseph Zyble
Helping out a number of people he can neither see, nor will he ever likely meet, is all in a day’s work for Mike Larson. For the past 15 years, Larson has served as an emergency dispatcher for the Negaunee Regional Communications Center located at the Michigan State Police Post in Negaunee.
Words like “essential” and “crucial” are used by the Michigan State Police to describe the role of emergency dispatcher. Technically, the dispatcher is responsible for responding to a variety of inquiries, complaints, emergency situations, reports of criminal activities, coordinating deployment of emergency personnel and acting in partnership with law enforcement officers patrolling the highways. But basically, their job is to help others. Larson describes it as very satisfying work.
“Helping people could entail ensuring that the officers we talk to on the radio go home safely at the end of their shift, or it could be helping the frantic person who calls 911 because their wife is about to give birth,” Larson said.
He received one such call last October in which the caller’s family member had experienced a heart attack.
“I had to convince family members to do CPR on their mother and to keep it up until the ambulance could get there,” he said. “It was a difficult call, and I’m very pleased that it ended positively.”
Recently, because of this incident, Larson became the first emergency dispatcher in Michigan to receive the MSP Lifesaving Award specifically for providing CPR instructions over the phone that resulted in saving a life.
Along with this award, Larson was also informed that he was named Dispatcher of the Year for the Negaunee Regional Communications Center.
“Being recognized for such an achievement is quite an honor, and I am very grateful for the accolade,” he said. “I work with an exceptional group of dispatchers, each one equally, if not more deserving in my book.  I am still having a hard time letting it sink in.”
His supervisor, the man who trained Larson, was not surprised by his achievements.
“Mike has been one of those continuously competent people who’s always doing a good job,” said Kory Dykstra, communications supervisor at the Negaunee Regional Communications Center. “He is one of the cornerstones of the operation. You can count on him to do the right thing, take care of every incident and do it well.”
Dykstra said emergency dispatchers are unsung heroes who rarely, if ever, get recognized for their efforts.
“This recognition for Mike is well-deserved and long overdue,” he added.
Capt. John Halpin, the Michigan State Police district commander whose responsibilities encompass the entire Upper Peninsula, had been commander of the Negaunee post earlier in his career and is also familiar with Larson’s work.
“Mr. Larson is an outstanding dispatcher; he’s very dedicated,” said Capt. Halpin. “If we were ever shorthanded, Mr. Larson would stay over and work a double shift. If needed, he’d come in early. He wants to help people.”
As a dispatcher at the Negaunee Regional Communication Center, Larson is responsible for handling 911 calls for Baraga, Houghton, Keweenaw, Ontonagon and Schoolcraft counties. The unit also provides non-911 dispatching support to a seven-county region in southwestern lower Michigan. For example, in January of 2015, the Negaunee facility assisted with a massive automobile pile-up on I-94 near Kalamazoo that involved nearly 200 vehicles.
“Our center handled radio traffic, called out wreckers, coordinated road closures with MDOT and maintained liaison between road units, command and the local dispatch centers in the area,” Larson said.
Not every call is of an urgent nature. As a matter of fact, most 911 calls are of the “general assist” variety, Larson said. These include things like unlocking people’s vehicles when they’ve left their keys inside and lift assists, a situation where someone has fallen without sustaining serious injury but needs a little help to get back on their feet.
“Though dialing 911 is meant to be reserved for emergency calls, sometimes we receive calls from the elderly community. Oftentimes, they’re home alone by themselves and are just looking for someone to talk to,” he said.
However, each time a call arrives, Larson readies himself for the worst.
“When that phone rings, I can’t help but think that this very well may be something bad. Sometimes I even think I can physically feel it,” he said.
Larson said his 15 years of experience, along with the extensive training he and his co-workers receive, have prepared him to deal with the wide variety of scenarios that might arise when the phone rings.
“Having the experience and training definitely helps me when someone calls 911. I am able to ascertain the situation quickly and get the caller the help they need,” he said.
However, he said, things were quite a bit different earlier in his career. Prior to dispatching, Larson had worked in television production for 10 years. He held an amateur radio license (ham radio), knew CPR and was adept with computers. He felt well equipped to face the challenges the new position would bring him.
“Starting a new job is always a little stressful, but this was a whole new ballgame,” he said. “It didn’t take long for me to question my decision of changing careers. I was sure I got myself in over my head. When I was new, each call was nerve-wracking.”
While the number of calls can vary dramatically from day to day, Larson estimates that he fields between 10 and 15 emergency calls per shift on average, along with numerous non-emergency calls.
The most difficult calls for Larson involve callers who’ve just lost a loved one.
“Those are tough. They’re hard because these callers are likely going through the hardest thing they’ll ever face,” he said. “Listening to these calls is a gut-wrenching experience. It makes you appreciate life a lot more.”
Talking with co-workers after a difficult shift is one way Larson winds down.
“I work with a great group of dispatchers. They’ve all had tough shifts. They can relate. If I have had a bad day, they’re all really cool and easy to talk to,” Larson said.
Listening to soothing podcasts or music on the way to his Richmond Township home also helps Larson to process the events of a difficult shift and to decompress.
“It’s a 25-minute commute for me.  Usually that gives me time to think about events that occurred during the shift,” he said.
In addition to receiving two awards, Larson was also informed that he won a coin design contest held among state police posts across the state. The contest asked participants to create a design for a commemorative coin depicting radio dispatching and the state’s four regional dispatch centers.
Along with a sketch of the state and the locations of its dispatch centers, Larson’s design incorporated the Mackinac Bridge, the Michigan State Police motto of “Excellence, Integrity, Courtesy,” emblems for police, fire and EMS and a radio tower with lightning bolts.
He said the radio tower and lightning bolts were “a kind of special homage, as a radio tower was used in the past on the old patches that were once worn by Michigan State Police radio operators.”
Though he hasn’t entered an art contest before, anyone who really knows Larson would not be surprised by his winning entry. He’s been creating art for a long time.
“I’ve always had an interest in art ever since I can remember. I grew up with a disability. I was born with cerebral palsy… both of my legs are affected,” he said. “Since I was very young, I’ve always been good at things that involved doing things with my hands. I’ve always enjoyed drawing, painting, sculpting, photography and videography … things of that nature.”
For winning the design contest, Larson will receive the first pressing of the coin he designed, as well as a jacket with the coin design embroidered on it.
In addition to being an artist and an amateur radio operator, Larson also enjoys working with computers and other electronic equipment. At the moment, he has a project in mind for producing a YouTube Video. However, if weather permits, you probably won’t find Larson inside.
“I like to spend much of my time outdoors. I like to go ride the trails on my side-by-side with my family and friends. Spending time with my family, going to see movies or going out to camp are things I find enjoyable,” he said.
“I view my life and my career positively and value my relationship with my co-workers. I always try to keep a positive attitude,” Larson added.

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