The sense of urgency poured through the dispatcher's headphones as the switchboard lights flashed. Some callers were rapid-fire frantic, rarely pausing for breath between pleas. Others were hardly audible between sobs and desperate screams.

"My baby's not breathing," one shouted.

"I've been in an accident," another voice quivered.

"Somebody's broken into my home. Please help me," another pleaded.

"I want you to stay calm, ma'am," responded Shelley Peetz, a soft but direct voice of reason speaking to strangers convinced that their worlds are about to end.

Peetz, 48, began working at the Anoka County communications center just a few months before the 911 system was introduced locally, exactly 25 years ago today. One of 33 communications dispatchers employed by Anoka County, Peetz answers as many as 200 calls a day, saying, "Police and fire. Is this an emergency?" And then she takes a deep breath, listens and directs the caller to the appropriate authority, responding to every plea as though it were life-changing and unique -- even though she's probably heard it all thousands of times before.

An estimated 200,000 calls are taken each year by Anoka County communications dispatchers, who then transfer the calls to the appropriate authorities. And the county dispatchers annually field at least another 200,000 duplicate emergency calls, those that others have already reported, said John Tonding, the county's communications manager. As afternoon turns to evening, the calls seem to multiply and become more catastrophic.

"You get a different flavor of 911 calls," Tonding said. "The afternoon rush hour brings accidents. People getting home from work discover crimes committed in their homes. And later in the evening, you're more apt to get calls concerning domestic violence."

Saving seconds and lives

The nature and urgency of the calls have been consistent for a quarter-century, Tonding said. But for Tonding, who started as an Anoka County dispatcher in 1978 before working his way through the ranks to his managerial position, and for Peetz, one of the county's five lead dispatchers, the handling of those calls changed radically with the introduction of the 911 system and, more recently, with the advent of cell phones and advanced technology.

The time difference in dialing 911 instead of a seven- or 10-digit number in a crisis situation could prove life-saving, Peetz said.

Staying calm is crucial

"You want to calm people down, and the longer it takes for them to reach you, the more they have to do to make that call, the more frantic they get," said Peetz, whose father and brother are former state troopers.

"Before 911, if somebody called screaming and they were disconnected, we had no clue. We could trace it if we had an open line, but that sometimes took an hour and a half. With 911 and with the improved cell phone signals, we know where the call is coming from, within 50 feet of where the call came from."

Peetz says some of the calls she handles are "heart-wrenching," particularly those involving infants.

"One of the unique skills of a 911 call taker is a short memory," Tonding said. "You take the call and then you move on. You have to -- because the second you get off the phone there may be another call who needs you even more."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419