The phone rings.
A dispatcher in the Douglas County Emergency Communications Center answers, “Douglas County 911. Do you have a police, fire or medical emergency?”
The emergency could be a vehicle accident, burglary, grass fire, overdose or downed power line. It could be a large-scale event like the May 2019 tornado or a series of events that happen nearly simultaneously like they did on Aug. 3, 2018, when there were three structure fires and a vehicle in the Kansas River with people inside. “That’s the thing about our job. Any time of the day can be busy and we have to be ready for that,” Emergency Communications Center Director Tony Foster said. “We are the number that people can call, and we are always there.”
Last year, the Emergency Communications Center (ECC) answered 40,170 calls to 911.
Foster started working for Douglas County as a dispatcher in December 2010 after working in the retail business for 15 years. He was ready for a change.
“I quickly learned that a dispatcher does more than people think. We are the eyes, ears and information system for law enforcement and firefighters. Those agencies would have a very difficult time operating without our interaction,” he said.
Dispatchers receive extensive training to help stay calm under often very stressful circumstances. The information that they collect and provide significantly increases the chances that law enforcement officers and firefighters are going to be in a safe position when they arrive. On the medical side, dispatchers have the ability to provide post-dispatch instructions. For example, they provide Narcan instructions for overdoses and CPR instructions for heart attacks. That ability significantly increases the opportunity for that person to survive the event.
Dispatchers also are the first line of defense when a law enforcement officer is in trouble. “There might be times when an officer will call out for help, and no one will know where they are except us because of the technology that we have in place,” Foster said.
In March 2021, the state of Kansas formally recognized 911 dispatchers as emergency responders through the Kansas Emergency Management Act. “When they did that, it was significant for us,” he said.
Foster quickly was promoted through the positions of dispatch trainer, assistant shift supervisor and then shift supervisor. He was named assistant director in 2019 and then director in March 2020. As director, he oversees about 30 employees, an annual budget of $3.2 million and the technology that’s required to complete their work. They dispatch for 10 organizations and have to consider how any upgrade will affect all of them.
Recently, ECC has taken over maintenance of the radio system in the county instead of having all of the organizations control their own radios. Foster and his staff also are bringing in technology that can be deployed in other counties in the event that Douglas County has widespread, catastrophic infrastructure issues. “This way, even if a tornado does wipe out a tower, there’s a way to provide first responders with cellular data.”
Douglas County Emergency Management Director Robert Bieniecki said he admires Foster’s vision for the community and appreciates his service as an executive committee member on the Local Emergency Management Board. “Tony has a forward-looking approach to the overall county radio equipment program, which I believe will be sustainable well into the future.”
Foster was recognized as 2020 Director of the Year by the Kansas Chapter Association of Public Safety Communications Officials, but he’s humble about his work. He describes it as “kind of a calling” after suffering a major life event where he was hospitalized and came close to dying.
“I feel like I’m actually making a difference,” he said. “The things that we do and the effort that we have put out is reflected in the community. It’s not for somebody’s profit. It’s for the goodwill and safety of the community, which makes coming to work – not like coming to work. It’s like helping out your neighbor every day of the week and getting paid for it.”
Foster grew up in Wyoming. In the fifth grade, his family moved to California, where he graduated from high school and attended California State University Long Beach. After two years, he decided to attend the University of Kansas where he studied medicine and then information technology. Unsure of a career path, he began working in retail for Target, helping to open Lawrence’s first store, and then Home Depot, where he was assistant store manager. While working, he earned a business degree and master’s degree in business administration from MidAmerica Nazarene University.
Foster draws from that experience in providing good leadership and a team environment. “I believe we’ve brought a whole breath of fresh air to the center, and it has really been able to flourish.”
Douglas County Sheriff Jay Armbrister agrees. “Foster has been a force for positive change in the Emergency Communications Center. From a first-responder aspect, he has been extremely helpful and empowering when it comes to getting dispatchers the benefits and resources they deserve when it comes to the traumas they experience on the other end of a phone or radio. Both he and Deputy Director Jeremy Rabb have also had a huge impact on the upgrade of the technical systems we now utilize here in Douglas County. From a Sheriff's Office perspective, sometimes the only person we have right there to help us on a call is the dispatcher on the other end of the radio.”
While Foster has worked during disasters like the May 2019 tornado or August 2019 flooding when the call volume was significant, he is quick to say that every single call is important and can affect each dispatcher differently. For example, when he was a dispatcher a call came in about a female student who was injured on a playground and couldn’t feel her arms or legs. The call came from his daughter’s teacher. “That call affected me a whole lot differently than the person next to me. So, every situation is different.”
Fortunately, the student who was his daughter’s classmate made a complete recovery after suffering a concussion.
For Foster, he was glad to know the outcome of that particular call. “One of the hardest things in here is you take the call, collect the information, the officer gets there and then you hang up. There’s no conclusion to the story,” Foster said. “Sometimes, we get information, but the majority of time – we don’t because the phone is ringing and we are on to the next call.”
Foster said he can remember calls that he took seven years ago. “I can replay every word that was said. They stick with you. We hear everything – we don’t see it,” he said. That’s the reason having mental health supports available for ECC staff is important. They offer mental health training, have chaplains available and provide critical stress debriefs.
Foster describes his staff as true heroes. “I don’t know where our community would be without them.”
The Sheriff’s Office is proud of Tony and his team. “We have been so blessed in this county to have an unbelievably strong and professional ECC and dispatchers to bail us law enforcement officers out of all the tough situations we find ourselves in,” Sheriff Armbrister said. “The entire Sheriff’s Office is proud to stand with Tony as we move law enforcement and dispatching into the future and remain one of the best agencies in the country.”