OKEECHOBEE — Before COVID-19 came into our lives, the terms “essential workers” and “essential services” were not often uttered, but now we hear them every day. What exactly are essential workers or essential services? How do you define essential? What is essential in one circumstance may not be essential in another.
The dictionary defines the word essential as absolutely necessary and extremely important. In our community, we have all sorts of essential things and people — doctors, nurses, dispatchers, law enforcement, corrections officers, grocery store workers and many others. This new series will highlight some of those people.
Cpl. Liz Kelly has worked as a dispatcher for the county for 30 years. She moved to Okeechobee in 1978 with her family and is a graduate of Okeechobee High School. She spent a couple years away, but when she moved back to Okeechobee, she went to work at the Okeechobee Health Care Facility. The husband of one of the women she worked with worked at the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office, and the woman told Ms. Kelly that there was a need for a dispatcher there. She applied and was hired on April 1, 1990. She just celebrated her 30th anniversary as a dispatcher and said, “It definitely has to be in your blood to stay so long.” There have been times over the years that she has considered finding another job, but she has never gone so far as to fill out an application. “There may be bad days, but there are good days, too,” she said.
She said things have changed a lot in the last 30 years. Dispatch gets a lot more respect than it used to. When new people are hired today, they know they will be appreciated and respected, she explained. “We make sure that happens, and Noel (Sheriff Stephen) thinks it is important, too.”
The job is stressful, she said. Sometimes she has to deal with people who are irate. “Nobody calls the sheriff’s department because they are having a good day.” A large part of her job is to calm the situation before the deputy arrives. On top of that, she is trying to get all the information about what is going on. Sometimes she has to be verbally forceful to get people to stop what they are doing and answer a question. Sometimes things happen that are hard, she said. Things have happened that will stay with her forever. “They are always there. You just kind of have to file them away and do your job.”
She works a 12-hour shift, and sometimes she works day shift and sometimes nights. The shifts rotate every two months. She has missed a lot of things in the lives of her daughters, but she always made sure someone was at the award ceremonies or football games to cheer on her children. They have had to move celebrations around, maybe have a birthday party on a different day or move Thanksgiving to a different night.
“It’s doable as long as you have a good support system,” she said. The dispatchers try to be kind to one another. If Cpl. Kelly is off on Christmas, she does not mind working so a person with young children can be home with them. “Family is important,” she said. “It’s THE most important thing.”
The biggest change she has seen since this whole COVID-19 pandemic situation began, she said, is in the questions they have to ask before an ambulance or deputy arrives to make sure their personnel are safe. “We have to make sure no one at the residence has been sick; nobody’s been in contact with someone who tested positive for the virus; they haven’t been out of the country lately or been in contact with people who have. Sometimes people don’t understand that while we are asking these questions, we are still dispatching.”
Often, people get angry, thinking the questions are delaying the arrival of help, but help is already on the way. She just needs to know what precautions the emergency responders should take when they get there. “We will never deny anyone service,” she said. Even if they get a call from someone they know has some sort of issue, such as dementia or something, they will still send someone to check things out if they get a call saying there is a man in the basement, because you just never know.
Lately, because of COVID-19, any calls that can be handled over the phone are — civil issues, landlord/tenant — that is, they’re handled on the phone unless there is a need for police to respond to the site. This is to minimize their actual contact, not only for their protection, but also for the protection of the community. They would respond in person to things such as domestic disputes in progress or disturbances.
They have four to five county dispatchers in the room at a time, and the city dispatchers share the room. Normally, they have four on a shift and between 2 p.m. and 2 a.m., they have a swing shift person who comes in. This gives them a fifth dispatcher during the peak times, although she said, nowadays, any time can be peak time. It used to be that weekends were the busiest time, but not anymore, so they never have fewer than three. Everyone takes calls except the radio operator, because her job is to ensure the safety of the officers on the road, and Cpl. Kelly does not like them to be tied up on the phone. There are three to four other people who can handle the phone calls. If a call comes in from someone needing the city, they just transfer the call.
Cpl. Kelly has been married for almost 30 years and has three daughters and three grandchildren. They all live in Okeechobee, so they are able to spend a lot of time together. Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, their family has been blessed to keep their jobs, she said. Her oldest daughter is the only one who lost her job, but she takes care of her grandfather and is working on her bachelor’s degree, so it has worked out well. Her middle daughter, Erika, works alongside her mother as a dispatcher. She’s been there for about two years. The youngest daughter is manager at Dominoes Pizza.
Cpl. Kelly’s plan is to work at the sheriff’s office for another five years, retire and move to Alabama, where her husband has a job opportunity. She is not concerned about leaving the kids behind. She said it won’t be hard at all to convince them to come along.
Sheriff Stephen said, “Cpl. Kelly has devoted her life to her 30-year career as a communications officer/supervisor for the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office. She is an example of the hard working, dedicated staff that I have the honor of leading. It’s women and men like her that make our sheriff’s office one of the best in the State of Florida. Thank you, Liz.”