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911 is the first line of public safety

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY/LEESBURG, Ga. -- The dispatchers who handle emergency calls at the Albany 911 center are accustomed to dealing with citizens' worst nightmares on a daily basis.

On March 14, 2007, the nightmare hit close to home, as word spread through the facility that the subject of a late-night emergency call was Albany Search and Rescue volunteer Jack Camp. Through their tears and concern, the dispatchers routed emergency personnel to the scene where Camp had been shot.

After they'd followed the protocols of their job and directed police and Emergency Medical Services personnel to the site of Camp's murder, the dispatchers allowed themselves to feel the loss of a fallen comrade.

"The people at the 911 center were devastated that night," Albany Fire Chief James Carswell said. "But they functioned like professionals. They had to get through to proper emergency personnel while supressing their own emotions.

"After it was over, they broke down."

Recognized as the "first line of public safety" by the agencies to which they direct emergency calls, 911 personnel in Albany and Lee County have the thankless task of sorting through thousands upon thousands of calls and relaying citizens' emergencies to law enforcement, fire and EMS agencies tasked with responding to such emergencies.

"It takes a special kind of person to do this job," Lee County 911 Coordinator Larry Hill said. "You have to be able to multitask: Listen to the caller and respond in a calm manner while capturing information that is dispatched to emergency personnel.

"From what I've seen over the years, 911 personnel are the lowest-paid and the least-trained in public safety, but they are the most dedicated. They have to be to do this job."

After recently being allowed to budget for additional personnel, Albany has 44 employees at its 911 center. Eight dispatchers and one supervisor work 12-hour shifts during which they may deal with dozens of calls that take anywhere from a few seconds to a couple of minutes, or one call that lasts an entire shift.

"A call to our dispatchers is a continuous process," Albany 911 Communications Manager Charlotte Downing Floyd, who has been with the city's 911 center for 34 years, said. "Once they engage a caller, they stay on that call until the person hangs up. They are constantly getting information to deliver to emergency responders."

Last year, the Albany 911 center received 241,269 calls, 191,235 of which were directed to the Albany Police Department.

Lee County, meanwhile, has eight dispatchers and two supervisors on staff. They work two to a 12-hour shift and dealt with 79,854 total calls in 2009.

"I've been trying to get additional staff for the last couple of years, but the budget's been so tight," Hill said. "We just don't have any room for error. If anyone's out sick or on vacation, we have to get a swing person to fill in. One good thing about our people is that they usually handle it themselves. They'll fill in for each other."

ALBANY HISTORY

Albany's 911 center got its start in the 1960s with two dispatchers answering calls on old PBX telephones. They'd take down emergency information and relay it to proper personnel. In the '70s, as the number of calls rose, fire department personnel were used to handle some of the calls.

Finally, by the 1980s, the city started hiring civilian personnel to handle emergency calls at the center. By the end of that decade, calls to all public safety agencies in the city were handled by 911 employees.

In 2000, utilizing special-purpose local-option sales tax funds, the old jail at the downtown courthouse was converted into an all-inclusive 911 center. Shortly thereafter, oversight of the center was shifted from Information Technology to the fire department.

"A consultant came in and looked at our 911 center, and he determined if we'd had an ISO (Insurance Services Office) audit at that time, it would have come in at a 5," Carswell said. "Since 10 percent of your ISO rating is based on how well your dispatch is tied in with the fire department, Mr. (City Manager Al) Lott and city officials decided to put the 911 center under the fire department.

"Once the change was made -- and there was a period of adjustment for personnel -- and the ISO audit was done, the city came in at a 2 overall, but our 911 center was designated a class 1, the best they give."

LEE HISTORY

Hill was hired by Lee County in 1992 to help establish a 911 center. He and an eight-person staff initially worked in a 9-foot by 21-foot facility with equipment that was available. A roomier and more modern 911 center was included in the construction of the Lee Law Enforcement Center that was completed in 2000.

"The first thing I did when I got here was ride all the streets and roads in the county and reassign addresses," Hill said. "Once that was in place, we started up the 911 center. We were originally placed in the old stockade across from the fire station on the Leslie Highway.

"We were in a building with 3-foot poured concrete walls and no windows."

Citizens in the county called an emergency number until the 911 center was up and running in 1994. The purchase of equipment and systems such as Computer-Aided Dispatch, which actually determines what agencies will be called in any given emergency, that came with the 2000 move allowed the county's center to earn Phase 1 designation.

TAKING THE CALLS

Albany 911 personnel go through three weeks of in-house training before being allowed to work a shift under the supervision of a training coach. They, as do their Lee County counterparts, must go through a 40-hour training course at the state's Forsyth facility before becoming a POST-certified Communications Officer.

"For our dispatchers to become POST-certified, they go through a process very much like our police officers," Deputy Emergency Management Director Jim Vaught said. "They're put through an extensive background check, and they're monitored very closely.

"In this position, they might deal with classified information. They're under the same restrictions as law enforcement officers."

The high stress levels under which dispatchers must work keeps the turnover rate pretty high. Floyd said she looks for certain kinds of people when filling positions.

"We're looking for somebody who can remain calm, handle stress and be empathetic, compassionate, without getting caught up in a caller's excitement," she said. "The reality is you might get cursed at and fussed at with any call; you're dealing with people who are in stressful situations.

"Most of our successful personnel are people who want to provide a service, who want to help others in their community. It's definitely a challenge, and a lot don't make it. But the ones who do deal with a call until it is concluded; then, once you're gone, they pick up the next call."

This week -- April 11-17 -- is National Public Safety Telecommunications Week. Those who witness and value the work of certified communications officers say it's recognition that is deserved.

"A lot of people like to throw stones at the 911 dispatchers," Carswell said. "We hear things like 'No one answered my call' or 'It was 45 minutes after I called 911 before anyone showed up.' First of all, calls are answered in the order that they come in. If someone calls and the phone rings for a long time, they assume no one is on duty. But I can assure you that's not the case.

"For one recent accident, our 911 center got 47 calls. The average number for each incident is 12. So calls are going to stack up. If you call, hang up and then call right back, your call goes to the bottom of the list of incoming calls. And once the calls come in, our CAD system categorizes them according to priority. So a noise complaint is going to move down the list when a Priority-1 emergency call comes in."

The fire chief says citizens should better understand the duties of 911 dispatchers.

"They're not the ones responsible for dispatching emergency personnel," Carswell said. "All they do is gather and pass on the information. The response of the various agencies is determined by administrators at each agency.

"The folks at the 911 center have taken some heat from the public, but a lot of it is not deserved. Sure, they're going to make mistakes -- they're human -- but no one around here is sitting around chatting and ignoring the calls that come in. When they come on a shift, they work until it's over."