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Longtime Douglas County emergency dispatcher retires after 33 years with agency

Monday, January 30, 2023 - 1:39pm

When Dagna D’Ercole started as a Lawrence Police Department dispatcher in 1989, the dispatch center looked much different than it does today with all the technology in the now-consolidated Douglas County Emergency Communications Center.

“There was one computer shared by the two LPD dispatchers. A dot matrix printer received incoming teletypes. The dispatch ‘console’ was basically a radio button and a footswitch. There was an alert tone button, microphone, desk phone, wall map and a machine to stamp the date and time on the incident cards,” D’Ercole said. “We had one TTY unit stored in a case under the console. Phone and radio traffic were recorded on a big reel-to-reel unit the size of a refrigerator. Today, each dispatch console has eight monitors, including touchscreens for the phone and radio computers. The only item that exists and functions in the same manner in the current ECC is…drumroll…the footswitch.” 

Amid all that change, she has been a constant voice in the Douglas County dispatch world for more than 33 years. D’Ercole retired Dec. 24 and took time to reflect on her long career serving in many capacities, including as a supervisor and training coordinator.

After working in the administrative office of Entertel, a telemarketing company at 619 Mass., she had grown weary of a sales-driven environment and always had an interest in law enforcement. She saw an ad in the newspaper about an LPD dispatcher job, applied and was not initially selected. However, they called her back a few months later to offer the position to her after the person they hired had quit.

“Training was tough, but I was very determined to keep showing up and pushing ahead,” D’Ercole said. “I spent about five weeks working alongside my trainer on dayshift. Then I was on my own on midnights, where I was often working as the only LPD dispatcher on duty. It was exhilarating, as well as a bit terrifying, to be the one responsible for and to the officers and citizens.”

Sheriff Jay Armbrister early in his career recalls D’Ercole being patient and helping him as a new deputy get to observe her and learn how dispatchers operate within the system and communicate with callers, law enforcement and emergency personnel.

“It stands out, because at that time it was unusual for an officer or deputy to express any interest in learning about our job,” D’Ercole said. “I welcomed the opportunity to help him to gain a better understanding of how things worked from this side of the radio. Jay has a special ability to be open and questioning, which has also served him well in his own career path.”

Over 33 years, D’Ercole’s calm presence has helped many in the field. She recalls difficult calls along the way, even during her last few months on the job. The one that stands out is her first shooting fatality, which occurred not long after she was released from training.

The male caller advised he had shot his friend while playing Russian roulette.

“While on the line, I was able to obtain additional information about the scene, who else was present and what had happened,” she said. “After arrival, the information provided to law enforcement by witnesses began to differ from what I had been told by the reporting party. Due to the details that I was able to gather in the moments immediately after the shooting, I was also called to testify in the subsequent coroner’s Inquest.”

The ECC staff will miss D’Ercole’s work as a dispatcher and for the contributions and leadership she has brought to the agency.

“She’s likely answered millions of phone calls and still gave it her all when she picked up that 911 line to the very end,” ECC Director Tony Foster and Deputy Director Sonya Baeza said in a written message about D’Ercole’s career. “To say that she will be missed does not even begin to explain what it will be like to continue working without her here. Dagna has been a mentor, a friend and a voice of support for so many that have walked through our doors. She always looks for solutions to problems and for ways to make things better, pushing us to be the best that we can be.”

D’Ercole plans to take a few months to rest, practice yoga and spend time with her husband, family and pets before seeing what lies ahead beyond her “first retirement.”

She’s grateful the ECC is in a good place and excited to watch her former colleagues continue to grow and serve the needs of Douglas County residents.

She also joins an exclusive club being only the third employee to retire from the agency.

“I never intended to be here long enough to retire, but this profession definitely has a way of getting into your blood. While there have been some difficult years along the way, this career and department have remained a constant for more than half of my life.

“My mission has always been to be the calm in the middle of the storm,” she said, “to bring peace and order to the chaos and to leave this place better than it was before me. I consider myself blessed to have been part of this department and able to serve in this manner for so many years.”

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