The Calm in the Storm

Before the First Responders Arrive, 911 Dispatchers Play a Critical Role in Reacting to Crises Big and Small

By Gina Gallucci-White | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 03.14.14 – Feature, Lifestyles, People & Places

Early last month, Frederick County’s winter of discontent reached crisis levels when an ice storm coated roads, trees and power lines. As the branches and wires came down, leaving tens of thousands of residents without power, the phone calls began to pour into the county’s 911 dispatch center.

In a modern office building near Frederick Municipal Airport, dispatchers scrambled to respond to a record 1,196 phone calls in one day. “If you calculate it out … we were actually handling more than an incident a minute,” says Chip Jewell, Director of the Frederick County Department of Emergency Communications.

It is the closest thing Frederick County and City police and emergency officials have to a nerve center—a 5,000-square-foot arena with large television screens hanging from the walls and just the glow from LED lighting and monitor screens illuminating 24 work stations in a mostly darkened room. The constant hum of voices of those working at stations can be heard.

“A lot of people think about the stressful schedule and job that the sworn officers have, but zero people realize that dispatchers are in a similar position,”—Frederick Police Department Chief Thomas Ledwell

People see firefighters running into a burning building. They look on as an Emergency Medical Services paramedic provides CPR to someone not breathing and watch as police officers comb the scene of a murder. But ahead of the arrival of those first responders is the 911 dispatcher.

“A lot of people think about the stressful schedule and job that the sworn officers have, but zero people realize that dispatchers are in a similar position,” says Frederick Police Department Chief Thomas Ledwell, citing shift work, stress and talking with people who are in crisis and extremely upset. A dispatcher’s verbal de-escalation skills are critical in gathering information from people.

Dispatchers are often the community’s first impression of emergency responders. “They are also an integral part of the puzzle of crime solving and crime fighting because without a competent dispatcher getting the correct information and giving that information out to our officers during that critical time when we are trying to catch somebody who just committed a crime—we are not going to do as good of a job so they are definitely a big part of that puzzle,” Ledwell says.

The Frederick County Law Enforcement Center is home to dispatchers serving the county, city police, Maryland State Police and State Highway Administration’s Coordinated Highways Action Response Team—the only call center in the state to house all those agencies together. Being in the same room with partner agencies allows dispatchers to share information and radio channels, and work face-to-face with other dispatchers which is more efficient and expedites service, Jewell says.

 “You truly don’t know on the other end of that phone, so you have to be prepared for anything when it comes in.”

As police officers, paramedics and firefighters rush to a scene, they have an idea of the kind of call they’re heading toward, be it a shooting, heart attack or house fire. They have time to think about what they’re going to need or what will be required of them. Dispatchers don’t get those moments. “When that 911 call rings, you don’t know if it’s a child locked in an auto or a catastrophic event,” Jewell says. “You truly don’t know on the other end of that phone, so you have to be prepared for anything when it comes in.”

More than receptionists answering phone calls, dispatchers use calm voices to ask vital questions while simultaneously putting information into complicated computer and radio systems. “These people put themselves out there into a very, very high stress environment but it’s also a very rewarding environment,” Jewell says. “What else can you do where you, yourself, can make a difference?”

“A VERY DIFFERENT ENVIRONMENT”

Opened in 1967, Frederick County Central Alarm initially only dispatched fire and ambulance calls. The first day of operation the office handled a total of one call for the entire county.  In those early days, residents didn’t have the luxury of dialing 911 for help, instead using a seven-digit number that in some far corners of the county wasn’t even a toll-free call. Dispatchers, all five of them, worked alone and were tasked with monitoring the county 24/7. The office was small and call notes were just written down on a piece of paper. There was no set list of questions. A phone was installed in the bathroom in case a call came in when the dispatcher was using the facilities. Emergency crews were dispatched over a single radio channel.

“There were no house numbers so you pretty much had to know the county and you had to get people to give you directions to their house,” Jewell recalls. People would use a variety of ways to give their location, such as saying they have a certain color car in their driveway or they lived near the place where a fire occurred years before. Jewell remembers one man, who had just moved to the area, called but didn’t know where he lived. Jewell found out he worked in Rockville and started from there. “I literally talked his way through Frederick County and described every intersection.”

Back then, dispatchers also weren’t allowed to give medical advice or instructions because of the potential liability issues. A person calling with a baby delivery, heart attack or trouble breathing had to wait until responders arrived. “It was a very different environment,” he says.

Jewell was hired in 1972 and about 1,500 total calls came in that year. In 2013, the county’s Emergency Communications Center, with a minimum of eight dispatchers on duty per 12-hour shift, handled nearly 139,500 calls. Dispatch is handled on 12 radio frequencies that can be distributed on more than 100 channels.

County and MSP dispatchers moved to their current home in 2002—just before the Beltway sniper shootings. City police moved to the complex in February 2013. With 80 percent of calls coming from wireless devices and a significant hearing-impaired population, the communications center became only the sixth county in the nation last year to offer the text- to-911 option for Verizon Wireless customers. Officials hope to be able to accept text messages from the other major wireless carriers in the near future.

“IT’S ABOUT SERVING CITIZENS”

Although approximately 200 to 300 people apply to be a dispatcher, only a dozen or so make it through the two tests, background check and interview process to attend the six-week academy where recruits answer simulation calls, participate in ride-alongs with first responders and earn state certifications. Frederick County Division of Emergency Management director Jack Markey says he tells recruits he needs them to do three things to be successful—be nice, be problem solvers and be part of a team.

“Ultimately, it’s about serving the citizens and getting them the right resources to help them through whatever caused them to call 911,” Markey says. They’re taught “to have empathy for the person on the other end of the phone so they can visualize what [the caller is] telling them and help guide [the caller] through quite often one of the toughest days of their lives when they have to call 911. Sometimes it’s happy, due to the birth of a child or something like that. But the reason they are calling us is something in their world is different and they are asking for assistance.”

“Ultimately, it’s about serving the citizens and getting them the right resources to help them through whatever caused them to call 911,”—Frederick County Division of Emergency Management director Jack Markey

After 25 years of being a volunteer firefighter/EMS paramedic in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., Michael Mills decided to move away from his first career in financial services to work full-time in public service. The Frederick County dispatch center seemed like a good fit because he has office experience with computers and customer service. “It translated well for me,” he says. “It’s a way to be involved in public service but not be on the street every day.” The academy he attended ended in late February and the class is currently taking calls for several weeks while a training supervisor looks on.

“It’s a whole lot to learn,” Mills says. “The systems are quite complex but I’m loving it. The people are phenomenal. They are just outstanding people. Everybody I’ve met—not only do they seem to enjoy what they are doing, they seem to genuinely like [working with each other], which is something you don’t always find when working in the private sector.”

Seasoned dispatchers are also required to do more than 40 hours of continued education. Calls are reviewed and graded for customer service.  Phil Lambert has been a dispatcher for more than 35 years. A volunteer in the fire service, he was hired just out of high school. He enjoys the people and helping others. “That’s what it’s all about.” The job remains challenging and provides him the opportunity to help in multiple incidents during a shift. “I consider myself very fortunate” to be a dispatcher, he says. “A lot of blessings.”

“Citizens should understand that as soon as we have enough information to determine ‘Oh, this is an emergency medical call; it’s a high priority,’ we will begin dispatching the public safety agency while we are still talking to the caller,”—Jack Markey

Jewell says the ideal dispatcher has to be compassionate, a good listener and a multi-tasker. “They really have to think on their feet because even though we have formal protocols when you call in—there are certain types of questions on just about every type of call you can think of—you still have to think outside the box a little bit and to be able to react.”

If someone calls in a fire, some of the questions the dispatcher will ask include “What is on fire? Is it spreading? Do you see flames or smoke? Is anyone trapped?” A call for a car crash can lead to questions such as, “Is anybody injured? Anyone ejected from or pinned in a vehicle?” The questions the dispatchers ask will determine the response that’s deployed. “Citizens should understand that as soon as we have enough information to determine ‘Oh, this is an emergency medical call; it’s a high priority,’ we will begin dispatching the public safety agency while we are still talking to the caller,” Markey says.

“ONE OF THE MOST CRITICAL COMPONENTS”

The toughest calls are the ones involving children, Jewell says. Dispatchers have also had to answer calls from their own family members. As a dispatcher, Jewell once listened to a man shoot his wife. He was also the last person to speak to a man who died in a house fire. Each dispatcher handles the stress differently. Some partake in stress debriefing provided by the county. Others use physical exercise, while some rely on the support of their co-workers.

Jewell says the national average for dispatcher turnover is approximately 17 percent, which is similar to the county’s rate. His office loses about four to six people a year. Some realize it’s not for them while others use their emergency response experience to get a job in another public service field, such as a police officer or paid firefighter.

But their job is crucial to the safety of residents and first responders, says Frederick County Sheriff Charles “Chuck” Jenkins. In his years as a deputy and detective, Jenkins recalls many robbery and domestic calls where “crucial information was dispatched accurately and timely that probably changed the outcome of the event.”

Maryland State Police Frederick Barrack Commander Lt. Todd May remembers when troopers didn’t have computers in their vehicles. The dispatchers “were our life line,” he says. “When we would be out on a traffic stop, we would give them information and they were usually the first to get back to us and warn us of a potential danger.” They would pass along information such as a suspect’s criminal history or more detailed vehicle information.

“They are one of the most critical components of our ability to provide services,” May says. “They are the link between the 911 center and our troopers on the road. … For what they do and the commitment they give us, they can never go unappreciated. We really need to acknowledge the fact they do so much for us.”