Traverse City Record-Eagle

February 27, 2014

Fun With 911

BY MATT TROUTMAN mtroutman@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Random whimsy sometimes pops into Leah Hornacek’s mind.

Take that early October morning when phones in the darkened Grand Traverse 911 dispatch center rang with a report of a strange traffic hazard: three or four horses running loose along Three Mile Road.

Dispatchers quickly scrambled Grand Traverse County sheriff’s deputies to wrangle the horses off the streets while Hornacek took to dispatch’s Facebook page to warn motorists. The lyrics to “Mr. Ed,” a 1960s television show that featured a talking horse, popped into her head as she typed out the post.

“We have a Deputy/Cowboy en route to speak with the animals,” she wrote. “(However), it may be difficult because: A horse is a horse, of course of course . ...”

Hornacek, 32, and her colleague Patrick Andresen, 37, are among five supervisors who write posts on Grand Traverse 911’s Facebook page, which has garnered more than 18,000 “likes,” and counting. The posts balance vital public information about serious matters like traffic crashes and weather emergencies with offbeat humor, often drawn from actual reports.

“It’s kind of contagious,” Andresen said. “It’s nice to have an outlet to share with people.”

Dispatchers spend 12-hour shifts in front of computer monitors and coordinate emergency responses with their headsets to an at-times continuous stream of stressful calls about death, suicide attempts, traffic crashes, car chases and domestic assaults.

Finding glimmers of uplifting thought and even humor can be cathartic. Sometimes it comes from a bizarre call: Michigan Dogman sightings, animals running loose in downtown Traverse City and gunshots that turn out to be acorns falling on rooftops.

“I don’t know if I could do this job if there (weren’t) some good bits and pieces and humor,” Hornacek said.

It turns out that the public appreciates it, too. Humorous Facebook posts about Halloween radio pranks, fugitives mistakenly dialing 911 and succumbing to the winter blues are awash with appreciative comments from the public; Andresen often finds these “hilarious.”

“It’s kind of a two-way street,” he said. “If you open up and allow humor, people can be funny.”

“I don’t think anybody wants to read a Facebook page that’s just bad, bad, bad,” Hornacek said. “If you take a chance to throw in a little humor, it’s appreciated.”

Each dispatcher has a style of their own.

Hornacek’s posts lean toward animal or musical humor, or a combination of the two.

Andresen ends many of his posts with variations of the phrase, “Thanks and as always make good choices.” One such recent post about police towing vehicles from a suspected minors drinking party received 3,850 “likes.”

Jason Torrey, Grand Traverse 911’s deputy director, said the crushing March 2012 snowstorm served as a catalyst for a social media outreach. He said dispatchers spent three days doing “everything they could do to answer the next call.”

Many calls weren’t emergencies, but came from people who wanted information about warming centers and power outages.

“What we needed was an avenue such as Facebook where we could reach 17,000 people at one time,” Torrey said.

The Facebook page went live in June 2012 and Torrey believes it helped trim calls to 911.

The dispatch center’s policy is to avoid writing about crimes, investigations or embarrassing situations. Employees instead opt to post useful information like road closures, weather updates and crashes. And when a horse with sleigh bells runs loose in Traverse City, motorists know to keep their eyes peeled.

“Even if we try to be funny there’s information being passed along,” Andresen said.