GREENFIELD — John Collins listened intently to the 911 caller, focused on the computer screens in front of him. With a swift tap on his keyboard, the dispatcher let first-responders know where to go and what to do.
In a matter of seconds, help was on the way — and Collins, not missing a beat, set back to pedaling.
The wheels spinning beneath Collins’ desk take up little room and hardly make a sound; but for the staff at the Hancock County Emergency Operations Center, these machines are an important means of handling a job that brings a unique kind of stress.
The duties of 911 dispatchers keep them tied to their desks for most of their workdays, sedentary and stressed with little time for breaks, whether to get up and walk around to re-energize or step away from the tragedy on the other end of the line. Now, the department’s leaders are taking steps to improve the physical health, emotional well-being and focus of the staff.
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County officials recently agreed to fund the purchase of two workstation bikes for dispatchers to use while on duty.
The $1,600 purchase aims to help employees stay energized and focused — especially important during occasional lulls in the work day.
The bikes fit under the operators’ desks and allow them to exercise between tending to calls coming in from county residents, increasing employees’ daily activity and keeping their energy levels up, said 911 center director John Jokantas.
In the three weeks since the exercise bikes were purchased, the staff of 20 employees has already logged about 400 miles.
County officials said they are excited to hear dispatchers are utilizing the bikes regularly, calling the purchase a small investment in the overall health and well-being of the county’s workers.
The work emergency dispatchers are called to do is hectic and stressful at times, Jokantas said.
Some 911 calls, like serious car accidents or lengthy SWAT incidents, can keep dispatchers at their desks for hours at a time, relaying information among several agencies and dozens of first-responders. Such calls can be taxing and give dispatchers limited opportunities for breaks, he said.
A 2012 study completed by a team of researchers from Northern Illinois University found that 911 dispatchers are as likely to suffer from anxiety issues, like post-traumatic stress disorder, as the police officers and firefighters who calls for help they field.
In response to the findings, the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch — a nonprofit organization working to set worldwide standards for 911 operations — recommended dispatchers do all they can to protect their mental and emotional health.
Creating opportunities for exercise during the workday is fast becoming a priority for leaders in the emergency response field, the article states.
Utilizing treadmills or exercise bikes in 911 centers is a growing trend, Jokantas said.
That effort to equip dispatchers with exercise options first came to Hancock County about two years ago, Jokantas said.
First, the county replaced the table-top desks at each of the center’s six computer workstations with desks that automatically adjust to a person’s height with the touch of button. The desks allow dispatchers to stand while still manning their computer if they prefer, affording them the opportunity to move around more regularly during a shift and stretch their backs, Jokantas said.
Additionally, a moveable treadmill was purchased that allowed dispatchers to turn any workstation into a walking desk by placing their chair with the treadmill, increasing the chance for exercise even more, he said.
Earlier this year, current employees at the dispatch center approached Jokantas about purchasing a pair of stationary bikes as well, to give them another workout option. The staff hopes to grow their collection of equipment in the coming years.
No amount of coffee can boost energy levels the way exercising can, dispatchers said.
Ashley Hamilton, a supervisor at the dispatch center, said she’s often able to pedal about seven miles during a workday, pausing with each emergency call that comes in. The increased activity has helped her stay focused throughout the day and inspired her to eat healthier outside of work, she said.
The dispatchers have even forged a friendly competition to see who can log the most miles walking or biking during a work week, Hamilton said.
Brad Armstrong, the president of the Hancock County Board of Commissioner, said he was pleased to hear county employees were taken advantage of a means to feel better about their jobs and even get in shape.
“Anything we can do to encourage a healthy environment is good,” Armstrong said. “(The purchase was) a small investment for healthier and happier employees.”