When a red light flickers on, help is on the way.
All hours of the day and night at Island County Emergency Services Communications Center, a team of first responders dons headsets and waits before a veritable wall of computer monitors for a call of distress. These first responders are invisible at the scene of an emergency, but their steady voices are often the first ones to provide instruction and comfort to Island County residents facing dire situations.
They are dispatchers, and as of this year, they have been serving Island County from a centralized location for a quarter of a century.
The communications center, known as ICOM, will celebrate its 25th birthday with an open house on Monday. Members of the public can sign up for tours that will take place from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Sept. 26 at icom911.org/tour.
ICOM was founded in 1997 by an interlocal agreement that consolidated the dispatch centers for all Island County emergency service agencies into one central agency. According to dispatcher Yvette Sandefur, the transition from three dispatch centers in the county to a single one has improved response efficiency. Sandefur began her career in dispatch services at the Oak Harbor Police Department in 1988 and has worked at ICOM since its inception.
“Having one central answering point is a lot more efficient, and better for everyone — for user agencies, for citizens, for all of us,” she said.
Sheriff Rick Felici said the benefits of ICOM extend beyond the initial response and reach all areas of police and emergency response work.
“Having a centralized dispatch and call data for the entire community has also added to our ability to perform successful follow-up investigations, monitor trends in criminal activity and to share data with other criminal justice organizations in the region,” he said. “Emergency response has definitely improved because of it.”
Work in the dispatch center is fast-paced and constantly changing. When the red light by a dispatcher’s station comes on, signaling that she is on a call, she is responsible for several things at once; she must determine what’s happening on the other end of the line, assess the severity and urgency of the situation, obtain the relevant information and pass it along to the appropriate responders, log the incident in her computer and provide instructions to the caller, all while remaining collected in the face of the emergency.
“Dispatchers are the calm within the storm,” recently instated Executive Director Sofia Kohfield said.
Sometimes those storms are literal; dispatcher Sarah Reinstra recalled her first day on the job, when one of Island County’s infamous windstorms blew through Whidbey. Wild weather means nonstop calls of downed trees, power outages and car accidents. Reinstra said it was overwhelming for a new dispatcher, though now after 16 years in the field, she said she finds joy in “being the calm in chaos.”
Addressing an endless stream of widely varied calls is both exciting and a challenge, Reinstra said. Every day, ICOM takes around 190 to 240 calls, with complaints ranging from barking dogs and intoxicated neighbors to car accidents and medical emergencies. A dispatcher has to switch hats with every call to address the needs of each specific situation, Reinstra said. No two calls are the same.
It makes for intense work. Oak Harbor Police Chief Kevin Dresker said he had to fill in for dispatchers occasionally at his previous department.
“That gave me more stress than actually going out on the street as a cop and handling the calls,” he wrote in an email.
In 2021, ICOM fielded 78,558 calls, including both 911 calls and calls to the administrative line. The agency is on track to surpass that number this year, with 54,152 calls in 2022 as of Thursday morning. The average call time is three minutes.
Some calls can be disturbing. Like other first responders, dispatchers are susceptible to PTSD and other forms of distress from the emergencies they listen to, even though they aren’t there in person, Sandefur said. One of the hardest parts of the job is learning not to bring it home at the end of the day.
But the work is rewarding, as well. Sandefur, Reinstra and Kohfield all said the capacity to assist others in their time of greatest need is what draws them to the profession.
“You see all sorts of things,” Kohfield said. “You see people at their worst time, and you get to help them.”
There are also happy calls; Kohfield remembered a time early in her career when she assisted in the birth of a child via a dispatch call. With the nearest ambulance about half an hour away from where the couple having the baby lived, Kohfield had to provide instructions and talk the father through the delivery. When they finished, the couple told Kohfield they wanted to name their newborn daughter after her.
Kohfield’s history with ICOM began in the agency’s early years. Born and raised in Bellingham, Kohfield worked as an ICOM dispatcher in the early 2000s before going to college in California. She studied business administration but continued working in the dispatch field, working her way through various leadership roles and eventually becoming the director of the center she worked for in California.
When she learned of the ICOM executive director position opening up, she said she knew it was time for her to come home.
She started in the new position in June and recently reached her 100-day mark. Her main goal is to focus on supporting and mentoring the dispatch team.
Kohfield’s leadership is expected to be a welcome change, according to Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson.
“ICOM has benefitted from steady leadership for decades under Tom Shaughnessy,” she said. “After Tom retired, we had a rocky transition, but now that we found out new director, Sofia, the organization is on track to meet the changing needs of the community.”
Felici said he is likewise expectant that Kohfield’s taking the helm bodes well for ICOM’s future.
“They are currently experiencing a leadership change and there is a lot of positive energy,” Felici said. “I have every confidence that with new Director Sofia Kohfield’s energy and leadership and the amazing team of people there, the future of ICOM is very bright.”