After the June 2016 flooding, Pocahontas County 911 Director Michael O’Brien knew some thing needed to change.
At the time, the 911 center had three small terminals in a small office which had dispatchers all but sitting on each other’s laps.
During the first 24 hours of the flooding – between midnight of June 23 to 11 p.m. the next day – the center processed 105 911-calls, 549 administrative calls and 2,190 pieces of radio traffic.
At that time, it was all hands on deck, and it became even more obvious the center was not equipped as well as it could be.
By chance, O’Brien received an email from the Cumberland, Maryland, 911 center, stating it was upgrading its system and had free equipment for any center interested.
“It said, ‘hey, we’re changing out our equipment, if someone can utilize this, you can have it,’” O’Brien said. “It’s eight year old equipment, but it’s twenty years newer than what we had. I jumped on it and we went to Maryland and brought home the equipment. We brought home $120,000 worth of equipment for free.”
The equipment was free which made it easier, money-wise, to remodel the 911 center to house the new equipment. A wall, which divided the office from the conference room, was removed, doubling the size of the dispatch area and a picture window was removed to make the center more secure.
Prior to the remodel, the dispatchers had three screens each. Now, they have six, making it easier to monitor all the systems they need to to ensure the safety of the public and emergency workers.
“We now have the ability to comfortably work three full-time dispatchers, and we can handle other administrative calls, as well,” O’Brien said. “They’re not sitting on one another’s laps. We can assign people to telephones. We can assign people to radios. We can prioritize like that and work as one unit.”
With the upgraded equipment, the center runs smoother and utilizes new technology that keeps emergency workers in contact with dispatchers at all times.
The center recently upgraded the radio system to an IP system – a $386,000 investment – which connects all the county’s fire departments to the 911 center.
“The heart of the radio system is the operational vicinity,” O’Brien explained. “We had, basically, what is called an analog system, and we upgraded to an IP type system which is top of the line, state-of-the-art and it opened us up and allowed us to do so much more.
“It’s a $386,000 investment that the county commission allowed me to enter into and it allowed us to do different things,” O’Brien continued. “One of the things we can do is IP based setup to solve our problem with the communication gap in Durbin.”
The Durbin gap made it difficult for the center to stay in touch with the Bartow-Frank-Durbin Fire and Rescue Department. With the new system, the 911 center is now connected through two radios to the station.
“We have two radios at the Durbin firehouse that we control through the Internet from here,” O’Brien said. “So we’re truly IP based setup to talk to Durbin and for the first time, Durbin can talk to us and we can talk to them without any interference, provided there’s Internet.
“We’re on a fiber line from Seneca Rocks [Spruce Knob Telecommunications],” he continued. “It’s been really good. It’s worked tremendous for us. This opens us up to allow us to build on our current radio system and do a lot more.”
The new radios also have an ID system, so if a department is trying to call the 911 center but can’t get through, the screen will still show which radio is trying to contact them.
The new dispatch stations allow the dispatchers to see more information at once with the use of six computer screens. Each dispatcher must have windows open for the 911 maps of the county, radio towers, recordings of incoming and outgoing calls, CAD [Computer Aided Dispatch System], NCIC [National Crime Information Center] and the main 911 system.
“One of the things this new setup allows us to do now is each dispatcher at each station has mapping at their console,” O’Brien said. “So even when a call comes in and it doesn’t pinpoint it on the map, we can see where the call is coming from – they manually have to look up that address – but they help direct people in. Before, they relied on the direction put into the CAD system manually, but now they can also verify that on our maps to make sure it’s a valid address.”
O’Brien hopes to connect the 911 maps and CAD system so that when a call comes in, a dot lands on the site to show exactly where the call originated.
A lot of the information in the system is added manually, including turn-by-turn directions to many of the households and businesses in the county.
It’s all connected through phone numbers. Each week, the phone company sends a list of numbers which have been changed, whether it’s a name change, a new owner to the number or a number that has been disconnected.
Each week when that list comes in, O’Brien and OEM deputy director Travis Cook enter that information into the system and upgrade the list.
“Today’s download day,” O’Brien said. “We had to go through and check, verify, put in and take out numbers. We take that a step further. We put turn-by-turn directions into every residence in the county. When that number calls 911, it comes in, bounces off our database and then comes up and tells us the address, who the caller is, turn-by-turn directions to their house and any special notes we need to know.”
In the case of individuals who frequently call 911, the system has pertinent information regarding their health which the dispatchers share with EMS workers who are on the call.
“Let’s say we have a patient who lives there who has dementia and they don’t have a caretaker,” O’Brien said. “If something’s not right when they call, we know the patient has dementia and we can put information like that in. We’ll put in if an individual is an elderly patient who lives alone – ‘if we get a call from this residence, we need to notify this person, this person and this person.’ We see that when that call comes in to 911.”
O’Brien is looking into other ways to continue to upgrade and improve the 911 system, including getting the 911 maps into GPS systems for all the emergency vehicles in the county.
“I’m doing some stuff with mapping now and trying to pursue that to get that mobile,” he said. “We’re working with some GPS type stuff to where we’ll be able to have maps in the field. The units will have mapping in their vehicles that work through GPS that don’t need any kind of cell service. We can see where they’re at and they can see where they’re at. We can monitor them here and see where they are in the county and route calls accordingly.”
Along with the computer system, the dispatchers also have a rolodex of Medical Dispatch Cards, listing common ailments, as dispatchers act as the first responders to an incident.
Dispatcher Alvon Ryder said dispatchers go through training every other year to be certified in CPR and to review the information on the cards.
Once dispatchers send out emergency crews, they stay on the line with the caller and assist in any way they can until the crew arrives.
“If we get an emergency and, let’s say we have somebody having a diabetic issue, we just bring this up – a card with very simple questions to ask and it helps us with their past medical history and what to do if they need any life-saving measures such as CPR,” Ryder said. “It’s just a little guide card that we follow.”
The dispatchers have to be prepared for anything – from an asthma attack, to a woman giving birth to a stabbing – they never know what the next call will be.
“We’re actually the first responders,” Ryder said. “So for example, let’s say Jeff [Jackson] took a 911 call right now and he had somebody unresponsive, not breathing. He would actually have to dispatch CPR instructions to someone over the telephone if they were willing to do it. He would have to remain on the line until EMS arrived at the scene. He would have to try his best, exhaust all of his training to make sure the person keeps breathing until EMS arrives.”
It takes a lot of hard work and thick skin to be a 911 dispatcher. Long shifts, calls from those you know and emergencies that are directly connected to you take an emotional toll.
“You come to work every day for an eight-hour shift with the expectation that you may have to stay sixteen and that’s just because that’s all the longer you’re legally allowed to stay without an eight hour rest,” O’Brien said. “It happens. If you’re here for seven hours and someone calls off, you’re on. That drives a lot of people away from this job.”
“It takes a special person to do this type of job,” Ryder added. “Not just anybody can do it. I lost my home.”
Four years ago, Ryder was on-duty at the center when the call came in that his house was on fire.
“Each call, you never know,” he said. “Once you pick up that phone, you never know what’s going to be on the other end. It could be something simple. It could be anything. We’ve had some tough calls.”
Having an upgraded center doesn’t necessarily make the calls any easier, but it does make it easier to help those who are making the calls.
“It’s very professional from what we had been working with for the last twenty years,” Ryder said. “It’s like we moved twenty years ahead. We’re proud of our 911 center. We wish it was more modern and up-to-date, but this is what we have. We are secured. That’s important.”
“We’re just trying to modernize and work up to where we should be,” O’Brien added. “The technology we had here was older – it was good, it worked – but it’s time to move up and start upgrading.”
Along with O’Brien as director and Cook as deputy director, the 911 center has 10 dispatchers: Ryder, Jeff Jackson, Laura Combs, Carol Smallridge, Angie Wilfong, Danielle Brown, Jared Clendenen, Tiffany Fisher, Bridget Shaw and Jonathan Moore.
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org