Forty years ago, Leetha Petersen’s first day on the job included a man with a gun threatening his former employer.
“I had no idea what to do,” the Moody County dispatcher says. She had 10 days of training under her belt, instead of the typical six weeks, and had only worked during the day. The call came at night, and a deputy stepped up to help her.
The incident didn’t deter Petersen from returning to work for the next four decades, helping stranded motorists, emergency callers and her own grandson who called 911 for a friend.
Part of the reason she has stayed is the ability to help people, especially when there is a good outcome, she says. And every day is a new experience. “It’s not routine. If you don’t learn something new in here every day, then there’s something wrong.”
Petersen was honored Friday for her years of service with an open house at the sheriff’s office, where family, friends, emergency responders and neighbors stopped by with hugs, cards and several bags of her favorite candy, peanut M&Ms.
Of the thousands of calls she has taken, her most memorable came about 10 years ago when she answered a 911 call from her oldest grandchild, Dakota, who was riding bikes with friends. One of the boys had an accident and a head injury that led to his death.
“He was hysterical,” she says of her grandson, who she calmed down so she could get information and send help. After the call, she helped her grandson settle down from the trauma, too.
Calm is Petersen’s strong suit. “I stay really calm until it’s all over with,” she says of the emergencies she hears. “If you have days that bad things happen, you know the next day will be a better day.”
Her experience doesn’t go unnoticed by Sheriff Troy Wellman, one of five she has served with.
“Having Leetha is a true blessing,” he says. “She is also a true godsend when we need to find family members in time of tragedy. The many years she has been in the chair, she knows who belongs to who and how many branches each family tree has.”
Petersen is a bridge between the old 911 addressing system and the new way, too, Wellman says.
When Petersen first started on Dec. 1, 1977, dispatchers wrote everything down by hand. “There wasn’t a computer in the place,” she says, adding that eventually the office got typewriters.
She had attended secretarial college and was good at keeping track of things and writing reports; it’s one reason she applied for the job in the first place. She also was a single mother of two young children, James and Jennifer, and needed full-time work.
These days, Petersen keeps track of each call with the help of six computer screens. One shows a map of the county and its neighboring counties. Another is used to connect with the caller. A third helps deputies in the field communicate with others, including emergency responders from other counties, for example. Besides Moody County sheriff deputies, she dispatches for Flandreau police, tribal police, the fire department, Moody County ambulance and sometimes the Highway Patrol.
When the Flandreau Locker burned last summer, she was on duty, coordinating a chaotic day that included getting eight fire departments to respond with specific equipment.
She is one of five dispatchers in Moody County and works a day shift, where she still has plenty of paperwork to complete on each call. It’s a job she plans on keeping for now, but she is considering retiring next June when she turns 65, opening up time on her calendar for more than the county’s emergencies. Her family has grown in the 40 years of dispatching, too.
“Then I can spend a little more time with my grandkids,” she says.