A day in the life of Alarm Monitor/Service Dispatcher Donavon Dick

Donavon Dick, Basin Electric alarm monitor/service dispatcher.

From a distance, Donavon Dick watched as a bouquet of pheasants rutted and scratched in a field near Sidney, Nebraska. In a blink, the serene scene was disrupted by a hawk, swooping in to snatch a pheasant for lunch. The bird struggled valiantly and successfully, and the hawk flew away, talons empty.

Dick observed the National Geographic-like conflict at the Sidney 345-kilovolt substation from more than 525 miles away while monitoring cameras from Basin Electric’s security headquarters in Bismarck, North Dakota. It’s one of his many duties as an alarm monitor/service dispatcher for the co-op’s security and response services (SRS), where he splits his time between security and dispatch.

He started at Basin Electric as a service dispatcher in 2012. After earning a degree in criminal justice, Dick moved to alarm monitoring in 2014 where he works 12-hour shifts from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., spending most of his time in security and then working in dispatch as needed, particularly during times of high call volumes.

On the security side, Dick monitors cameras, access logs, and alarms throughout the Headquarters complex and at the cooperative’s remote facilities that are not staffed around the clock, like Transmission System Maintenance (TSM) outposts and distributed generation facilities. He also conducts on-site security rounds at the Bismarck and Menoken, North Dakota, facilities. “We check the doors, check for smoke or water damage, anything that’s unusual or could be a hazard. We check fence lines, gates, and make sure no one can enter,” he says.

Most camera and alarm alerts are innocuous. Procedures are in place so security knows who should be onsite and when. If Dick does get an alert that needs investigating, he contacts the on-call personnel at the site, and together they determine whether law enforcement should be contacted.

Many times, it’s simply employees who are still working on-site, or wildlife, which he finds entertaining. “You’ll see the same animals night after night, the same coyotes, rabbits, and skunks — the skunks seem to eat bugs,” he says.

During the pandemic, while most Headquarters employees have been working from home, Dick and his SRS colleagues have remained on-site to conduct their essential duties. In the absence of an open reception area, security has the added responsibility of taking switchboard calls and managing contactless business-critical pick-ups and drop-offs.

On the dispatch side, Dick manages phones and radios for electric cooperatives that use Basin Electric’s call center. Cooperatives can direct their after-hours calls to Basin Electric, where dispatchers greet callers with the cooperative’s name and log their concerns. 

“Our primary job is to take outage calls. We’ll contact the lineman on call and he’ll update us on the radio with what he found,” Dick says. “We track the linemen for their safety throughout the course of the outage until they’re back at the shop.” 

Each cooperative that uses SRS has its own set of procedures for taking calls and managing outages and line crew call-outs. Dick documents everything from the call and outage response, including the cause and restoration time, and sends reports to the cooperative.
If call volumes are especially high during a severe storm, callers may be met with a recorded message acknowledging the outage and for most callers, that’s all they want to know. Otherwise, callers can stay on the line to speak with a dispatcher.

Working in dispatch is a customer service-centered job, and occasionally Dick encounters frustrated co-op members, which he manages with compassion. “When people call and they’re upset, it could be they’ve got something else going on in their life, like family or health issues. Power going out only compounds their frustration with the current situation. In addition to telling us their power is out, they may tell you what’s going on in their personal life. I think they just want to be listened to and want to know you understand.”

Both the security and dispatch sides of his job carry the challenge of managing the unknown. “You have to adjust in the moment — you’ve always got to be ready to handle the unknown.” He’s also responsible for managing an ever-changing knowledge base, like maintaining an Emergency Medical Technician certification and learning new outage management systems and call procedures.

Dick brings a mind for detail, watchful eyes, and empathetic ears to his position at Basin Electric. “It’s always nice to help someone in need,” he says. “People from time to time will thank me for getting their power on or for helping them feel safer. It’s rewarding when people express gratitude.”