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Mills named Dispatcher of the Year

Summer Bonnar, NLJ Reporter

Weston County gained Tonia Mills as its dispatch supervisor this past June, but the area has reaped the benefits of having Mills as a member of the dispatch team for nearly 19 years. Now, coming up on two decades of service, Mills has been recognized as Wyoming’s Public Safety Communications Telecommunicator of the Year for 2023. 
She received the award at the annual Wyoming APCO Conference held in Casper on Nov. 12-15. APCO stands for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials.
The award is certainly not something Mills, a longtime resident of Weston County, would have anticipated getting when she first joined the dispatch office when a friend told her to apply for the job.
“I didn’t think I could do it. It was something I had never tried before. I was really hesitant to do it,” she said. 
But Mills quickly got used to the job and its duties. 
“I love it, it fits,” she said.
 Derek Thompson, recently appointed chief of the Newcastle Police Department, said he has had the honor of working with Mills for 13 of her 19 years on the job. From his time in the Weston County Sheriff’s Office and now in the police department, Thompson said, he has seen Mills set herself apart from other dispatchers.
“She really has bent over backwards to do everything she can, to make sure our public safety communications system is manned 24/7,” Thompson said.
Mills is one of the few dispatchers that Weston County has available at present, and this staffing issue has led to Mills having a lot of work ahead of her after she stepped into the role of dispatch supervisor when Melissa Stubs retired from the position this past summer. Mills was excited to take on the job, but some staffing obstacles got in the way. 
“I stepped into her shoes thinking I was going to supervise and do all these great things, and I have three dispatchers,” Mills explained.
The lack of dispatchers has caused the new supervisor to work long hours in an effort to staff the line 24/7. Recently Mills has reached out for help around the state, and dispatchers come in from Riverton, Buffalo and Torrington to help Mills and her team.
“They help us out, give us a few days off in between,” she said.
While the hours are taxing, Mills has a clear passion for her work, which involves helping the public by dispatching ambulances, fire trucks, law enforcement and other emergency services personnel. 
Mills said, though, that she enjoys the more personable aspect of the job.
“You are taking on their (the public’s) worst day and giving them a solution,” she explained.
She also really likes that every day she walks into the office knowing that she is going to have a different experience.
“It’s different every day. You never have the same two calls,” Mills said.
Mills’ nomination letter from Wyoming APCO/NENA Chapter describes the reason for the dispatcher’s recognition.
“The recipient this year has gone above and beyond for the departments she dispatches for. Without her they would not be able to function,.” it states.
Thompson agrees, noting that Mills orchestrates the dispatch operation, and makes sure someone is there to answer the calls. 
“She is invaluable to us. We wouldn’t know what to do without her at this point. She runs the one and only public safety communications in Weston County,” he said. “She’s always been very motivated. She shows up to work and works hard. I think it is a well-deserved award.”
Besides the approval from her supervisor, Mills has another fan. Officer Kellie Moran is the one who nominated Mills for the award, and she said she thinks very highly of the dispatch supervisor.
“[Mills] has worked many hours and still comes in with a smile on her face and never backs down from a challenge. She is always putting her employees before her and making sure they are taken care of,” Moran wrote in the nomination letter.
Both Thompson and Moran joined Mills at the conference to watch her receive her award, but according to Mills she had to be “drug” to Casper for the event. 
She explained that Thompson and Moran chose not to tell Mills about the awards ceremony, but instead told her that she was taking off work and going to Casper with them. Mills worried how operations would run in her absence, but Thompson stepped in and got the schedule covered so she could go to the banquet.
Not only were her colleagues present at the occasion, but her family also made the trip.
“I didn’t expect them to be there until they showed up. It was kind of cool,” Mills said.
While she enjoys most aspects of being a dispatcher, Mills pointed out that it isn’t all fun and games. After she gets the call and sends the appropriate response team to the scene, Mills rarely hears about the results of her efforts, and she admits that being left after helping to wonder in suspense is hard for her.
“There is a very high stress level to not knowing,” she said.
The award “helps keep her spirits up doing the work that she is,” Thompson said, and she agreed the recognition from the state helps her to stay motivated. 
“It motivates me to be a better supervisor; now I have to hold myself to that higher standard,” Mills said of the honor.

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