Would you be able to remain calm if someone called you and screamed that her father had just shot her mother and had the gun pointed at his own head, then you heard a gunshot in the background?
Would you be able to keep your composure if you picked up the phone and found someone on the other end who had just been involved in a traffic accident on I-75 and had run off the road and didn’t know where he was? Oh, and by the way, his good friend is sitting dead in the passenger seat next to him, killed in the wreck.
Whitfield County’s 23 telecommunicators — as 911 dispatchers are known these days — face the possibility of answering a call like these every time they punch the button on their console and say, “Whitfield County 911.”
In appreciation of the job they do for regular citizens 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 911 operators across the United States are being honored this week during National Telecommunicators Week.
“These guys do a phenomenal job,” says Whitfield County 911 Deputy Director Jeff Ownby. “They’re faced with everything from an animal control call to a potential unresponsive person who may have had a heart attack and they have to help try to bring that person back if they can before the responders get there. We’re glad this week that we can do something to say thanks to them for doing what they do and getting the word out to everybody else in the community.”
Local telecommunicators will be honored with a special meal and map-size posters covered with thank you messages from law enforcement and fire department workers. On Friday, the 2011 Telecommunicator of the Year will be announced, and several other fun awards are also being presented.
It’s a job not everyone is cut out to perform, yet a current opening has drawn about 150 applicants.
“We have everyone from school teachers to Hyster drivers applying,” Ownby said. “We require a high school diploma, they have to be a U.S. citizen, and they must have no felonies or pattern of misdemeanors because they’re criminal justice employees.”
The hiring process to fill the 24th slot will wind up taking about two months, “and it’ll take another good six to eight months just to get ‘em through training,” Ownby said. “Even then they’ll still have lots of questions.”
You see, that calm, reassuring voice we all expect from a 911 operator doesn’t just magically appear.
“Probably the most critical advice we give is getting someone who’s hysterical to try and remain calm,” says Brittany Pierce, a seven-year veteran of the local 911, “because acting erratic or hysterical is just going to make the situation worse for them and the people around them.”
She says intensive training helps telecommunicators themselves remain calm, even in the midst of chaos: “They could definitely tell our excitement level on the phone, if we get hysterical with them as well.”
Helping with that training is Krista Strickland, an eight-year 911 veteran and one of four shift trainers who guide new telecommunicators and also provide training to the other fellow telecommunicators under the guidance of training coordinator Carla Kelley.
Strickland comes from a family background of public safety. Her father worked for the Dalton Police Department until 1991, and her grandfather worked in security for many years.
“It was just by chance that I saw a position was open at 911, and I thought that might be something that I’d be interested in,” Strickland recalled. “I applied, and here I am. I was in college for criminal justice, so this was just kind of an opportunity to see what this area was like. Once I came here, I liked it and stayed. I haven’t moved on anywhere.”
She appreciates that the job allows her to be involved in multiple aspects of public safety, like law enforcement, fire and EMS.
On this particular morning, Strickland answers a call from a woman who says her cat has been attacked by a pit bull. By the time she hangs up about a minute later, Strickland has reassured the caller that an Animal Control officer will visit her and told her to wait at her house for him.
Such quick service is standard protocol for local 911 telecommunicators.
“The time frame we have is 90 seconds to get the call taken and then sent to the appropriate dispatcher,” Strickland said. “Ninety seconds is usually a pretty good amount of time to get the information we need, or at least get started. That doesn’t mean the whole call has to be completed in 90 seconds; it just has to be where we can go ahead and start sending help to them in that amount of time.”
Staying with a call
Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way every time, Strickland says, recalling the time she answered a nighttime call to find a man telling her he had wrecked on I-75 and didn’t have a clue where he was.
“He just knew that he hit 911, and I answered, so he must be in Whitfield County,” she said.
Special equipment ordinarily allows many calls to be traced to their location, but the software didn’t work in this particular case.
“I was on the phone with him for at least an hour and a half before we got help to him,” she said. “He was pretty sure his friend in the car was already dead, and he was hurt bad enough himself that he couldn’t get out of the car to try and flag down help on the interstate. We had the police and fire department driving up and down the interstate looking for him, but he was down an embankment and they couldn’t see him. Finally, we were able to get him to climb onto the hood of the car, which took him forever because of his injuries, and they were able to see him.”
‘A life-changing job’
Strickland can sympathize with rookie telecommunicators because she recalls shortly after she was turned loose to answer calls on her own that she received a call from a woman who said her father had just shot her mother. Seconds later, she actually heard the gun go off again in the background as the man committed suicide.
Events like that can be hard emotionally for any telecommunicator, let alone a new one.
“It was hard for me,” Strickland said. “I guess it’s harder for anyone when you’re newer and that’s the first call to that effect that you’ve had.”
But, as Ownby tells all new telecommunicators when they are hired, “It’s a life-changing job. You won’t be the same person the day you start and once you’ve been here a while. It’s not a bad thing; you’re just exposed to so much stuff. You’ve got the good and the bad; you can’t really dwell on the bad because you’ve got to answer the next call, you know.”
“You have to get ready for the next call,” she says. “You have to end that one when you hit the release button, and when you hit the answer button for the next call, you have to totally start all over again. You can’t have any of that in mind, or it might affect the way you take the next call. You just have to start over every time.”
Providing peace of mind
They’re known as public servants for a reason, and helping her fellow Whitfield County residents in their hour of need is one of the satisfying aspects of her job for Strickland.
“I was on nights for the first five years I worked here,” she said, “and at night we had a lot of prowlers and stuff like that and people were scared. Just knowing that when they called and talked to you and then you sent the officer to drive around their house, it made them feel a little better. Even small things like that make you feel good that you helped them, gave them some peace of mind at least.
“It doesn’t have to be something big to make you like you did something good,” she said, “just like a lady this morning who called. Her daughter was on the way to work, and some person in a truck was trying to run her off the road and making gestures at her. She called her mom, and then her mom called us, which kinda delays things a little bit, but teenagers get scared, I guess, and want to call their parents. The daughter made it to work, the guy turned off, and we never found his truck anywhere, but just knowing that her daughter was safe and we gave a lookout for the vehicle, just makes you feel like you did something good, even if it’s little, even if you didn’t catch the bad guy.”
Pierce agrees. “Oh, definitely, you feel satisfaction helping people achieve whatever kind of goal it is they need, whether it be getting an officer on the scene for some kind of disturbance or some kind of medical call getting the ambulance there to help.”
The story behind telecommunicators week
Each year, the second full week of April is dedicated to the men and women who serve as public safety telecommunicators.
The idea originated with Patricia Anderson of the Contra Costa County (Calif.) Sheriff’s Office in 1981, where it was observed for three years. Members of the Virginia and North Carolina chapters of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) became involved in the mid-1980s.
By the early 1990s, the national APCO organization convinced Congress of the need for a formal proclamation. Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., introduced what became H.J. Resolution 284 to create National Public Safety Telecommunicator Week. According to congressional procedure, it was introduced twice more in 1993 and 1994 and then became permanent, without the need for yearly introduction.
Across the nation, 911 dispatchers now celebrate National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week every year. Congress designated the second week of April as a time to honor all 911 dispatchers who answer the calls for help and provide emergency assistance to the public and emergency public safety responders.
Most people do not think about the people behind the voices of 911 until they need to call for help. Some people equate 911 with police cars and fire trucks, with lights and sirens blaring, or an ambulance speeding off to a hospital emergency room.
While police, fire and ambulances are obviously linked to 911, it may be difficult to visualize the people who perform the functions behind the scenes.
911 dispatchers are the “first” first responders in emergencies. In addition to the long hours, holidays and weekends worked that these professionals endure, the 911 dispatchers often volunteer their time in other ways to support the community, such as helping to educate children about 911, participating in school events and lending a helping hand for various community causes.
This week is dedicated to public safety telecommunicators who aid in providing 911 emergency assistance to citizens everywhere.
The term 911 is often associated with rapid emergency response, poise under pressure, aid and compassion in times of distress, and critical decision-making within seconds.
Many people do not stop to think about these seemingly nameless, faceless individuals until they experience an actual emergency themselves. These professionals make the difference between life and death in many instances.
This year, the week of April 8-14 is dedicated to recognizing these individuals across the nation and taking time to show appreciation for all that these dispatchers do on a daily basis.
By the numbers in 2011
• 169,232 total calls were documented by Whitfield 911 by creating a CAD report. A CAD (Computer Aided Dispatch) report is created when genuine incidents or emergencies exist and 911 sends units. In all, the local 911 center took more than 240,000 telephone calls, both non-emergency and emergency.
• 29,124 traffic stops were answered by Whitfield County telecommunicators from the Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office, Dalton Police Department, Tunnel Hill Police Department, Varnell Police Department and Cohutta Police Department.
• 9,214 medical calls.
• 4,688 motor vehicle accidents.
• 4,091 Animal Control calls.
• 2,128 domestic disturbances CADs were created.
• 293 structure fires or fires inside or near a structure.
Apply online, and 911 staff screens the applications and selects the eligible applicants for CritiCall testing. CritiCall is a computer program that tests the applicants for 911 operator skills but for people who do not have any experience.
No formal training is required to be hired as a telecommunicator, but once a person is hired the county is required to put the employee through a good deal of training within the first six to eight months.
Minimal standards to apply are 18 years old, U.S. citizen, high school diploma, no felonies or aggravated misdemeanors.
Required 911 training
APCO (Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials) Public Safety Telecommunicator 1: (40 hours in house)
GCIC (Georgia Crime Information Center) Certification: (36 hours in house)
Emergency Medical Dispatch: (24 hours off site)
Emergency Fire Dispatch: (24 hours off site)
Emergency Police Dispatch: (24 hours off site)
CPR: (8 hours on site)
Georgia Basic Communications Officer: (40 hours within six months of hire date off site)
Who’s Who of Whitfield 911
• Chief Carl Collins, 911 director
• Jeff Ownby, deputy director: Day-to-day operations manager.
• Carla Kelley, training supervisor: Supervises all new employee training and continuing education classes.
• Amy Cooley, administrative assistant: Clerical, finance, data entry, manages the addressing and response data in the 911 CAD (Computer Aided Dispatch) system.
• Scott Czerneski, Kevin Day, David Metcalf, Victoria Caylor, shift supervisors: Manage each shift, but also work as a telecommunicator/operator and dispatcher.
• Jeff Arp, Ashlee Swilling, Amanda Fleming, Tammy Walkey, senior telecommunicators: Second in charge of the shifts. Whitfield 911 currently has two of these positions but is slotted for four.
• Brittany Pierce, Krista Strickland, Jantzen Chance, shift trainers: Responsible for training new employees while on shift and making sure that assigned shifts are completing their continuing education training.
• Kelly Thompson, Martha Eaton, Josh Cherry, Jacelyn O’Neal, Brittany Moreland, Kimberly Miller, Anthony Cross, Jennifer Tallent, Kim Griffin, Angela Myers, Angelina Walker, Natasha Pritchett, telecommunicators (911 operators/radio dispatchers): Trained to take calls and dispatch emergencies over the radio to the appropriate agency.