Phil Brazelton was working as a garbage man when he noticed some unusual activity on his route west of Fort Calhoun.
“I kept going past this farm place that had a Happy Cab parked in front of it every Thursday night before midnight,” he said. “I thought it was kind of strange.”
Brazelton told Mike Robinson, then a sergeant with the Washington County Sheriff's Office, about it. The two were close and served together on the Fort Calhoun Volunteer Fire Department.
“The next thing you know, about two Saturdays later, I was coming home from work and the road was blocked by the state patrol and lo and behold they had a drug bust there,” Brazelton said.
Not long after, Robinson asked if Brazelton would be interested in a career in law enforcement. Brazelton agreed.
“I didn't realize that I had such attention to detail and something looked wrong,” he said. “In law enforcement, 90 percent of what we do is 'This doesn't look right.'”
Brazelton joined the sheriff's office as a reserve deputy in 1992. He became full time deputy in 1994.
On Wednesday, Brazelton retired as captain of the communications division after 26 years with the department.
Brazelton worked as a road patrol deputy before taking a year off in 1997. He returned to sheriff's office in 1999 and worked in the communications division and on the road.
But it was a natural disaster that changed his role with the sheriff's office.
A severe thunderstorm swept through Washington County causing damage. In Fort Calhoun, deputies were trying to block streets and control the situation. Robinson said he was only a few blocks from the deputies and could see them, but could not communicate with them due to the outdated radios.
“That's when I made the decision that we needed to upgrade our system,” he said.
Robinson tasked Brazelton to serve as project manager to oversee the upgrade and the completion of a new Washington County 911 center.
“He was savvy with what we needed and the direction we needed to go,” Robinson said.
Brazelton had the experience having served as a dispatcher for Omaha police and fire and he had previously worked for Motorola.
“I never gave up on learning in that trade,” Brazelton said. “I always kind of kept that in the background just like my commercial driver's license, which I still have.”
The new dispatch center opened in May 2006 in the basement of the courthouse. Brazelton also was promoted to captain that year, serving as the director of communications.
Over the years, Brazelton saw plenty of changes as technology advanced, including the use of cell phones and how it changed how 911 centers operate.
“It used to be back in the day if you got one or two calls on an accident out on a highway, you were lucky,” he said. “Nowadays you're inundated with calls. Everybody calls in with what they've seen or what they heard.”
Wireless 911 has its disadvantages, too, he said.
“Everybody assumes we know where they're are at. That's the biggest hurdle we have right now because their stuff is not accurate,” Brazelton said. “We're not getting information we're supposed to get when it comes to people's locations.”
The industry, he said, is working on improvements.
Washington County was the the third public safety answering point in the state to get text to 911.
“We have very few people use it,” he said. “It's a tool we have. I'm not sure everybody realizes we have it.”
Robinson said Brazelton has been instrumental in helping Washington County through upgrades, obtaining grants and helping area firefighters.
“He's worked extensively with the fire departments to help them. He did a lot of the radio programming for the fire departments that they didn't have to pay for,” Robinson said. “He's just done a fantastic job.”
The latest upgrade, which was approved in 2018, helped all county entities upgrade radios after Douglas County upgraded its communications system.
“The biggest accomplishment I think we've done is being able to work with our neighbors and share resources. That's the biggest one,” Brazelton said. “That has saved us hundreds of thousands of dollars in ongoing costs and makes us work together by default.”
As a former dispatcher, Brazelton has watched over his employees, especially after those more difficult calls. One call, in particular, stands out for him. A woman living along state Highway 133 called 911 after her lawn tractor rolled over her, cutting her leg.
“She crawled up to the house, got in and (the dispatcher) talked her all the way through until EMS showed up to hold direct pressure on her wound,” Brazelton said. “I believe it saved her life.”
It's his employees, Brazelton said, he will miss the most in retirement.
“My employees have to be some of the best folks I have ever worked around in my whole entire life. … The people who have stayed on and been there a long time are the ones I depend on, the ones the citizens can depend on to give them a quality of service that is second to none,” he said.
Dispatcher Lori Anderson has been promoted to replace Brazelton.
“I think she'll fit the job well,” he said.
Brazelton will stay on “at a distance,” he said, to help ensure the transition goes smoothly.
Due to the coronavirus outbreak, a retirement celebration could not be held. However, Robinson said they will have a proper sendoff for Brazelton in the future.
“We're going to send Phil out the way he deserves to be recognized for everything he's done for Washington County,” Robinson said.