DOBSON — They are the connection between the public and emergency service officials, the lifeline to getting people help when they need it most and quickly — they are telecommunicators.
The week of April 9-15 was National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, recognizing and raising awareness of dispatchers on the other end of the radio who get help for the public, dispatch emergency officials and ensure emergency officials are safe and have the support needed to do their job.
“Our dispatch center is 24/7 for everybody in Surry County, minus Elkin police and fire departments, and (the) Mount Airy Police Department. We do dispatch Elkin Fire Department for first response, or if their system goes down,” said Stephanie Conner, director of the Surry County 911 Communications Center housed in Dobson.
The center also handles calls for service for 19 fire departments; Surry EMS’s seven ambulances, three quick-response vehicles and two basic life support units; Dobson Police Department; Surry County Sheriff’s Office; after-hours calls for Pilot Mountain Police Department; and assists Surry Community College’s campus police.
But the county’s telecommunicators are the primary receivers of all calls in Surry County, and then forward calls along to other dispatchers in Elkin, Mount Airy or Pilot Mountain depending on the need of the caller, Conner explained.
Making sure the public and emergency crews are serviced are 13 full-time and nine part-time telecommunicators as well as two in-house information technology staff members, Conner and her assistant director, Nick Brown. Those telecommunicators work on rotating schedules in 12-hour shifts, with three telecommunicators working at a time from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. or 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., and a fourth dispatching from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. during peak call hours.
Conner said the goal with the rotating schedule, which provides a few days off between each stretch of shifts, is to allow time for dispatchers “to de-stress.”
“It is stressful, you are taking 911 calls back-to-back for 12 hours,” said Conner, who has been with Surry County’s center for 17 years. “It is very stressful, but a very rewarding job.”
While answering multiple incoming lines and juggling the information coming in with relaying the information to responders en route to calls for service is a key role for dispatchers, their duties go far beyond that.
“Every medical call we do instructions for, from CPR to rescue breathing, child birth, bleeding control, even EPI pen administration,” Conner said, noting that there is a national push to reclassify telecommunicator jobs from clerical personnel to public safety communications officers. “Every year at our banquet we honor saves. If we get pulses back and the crew is able to leave with pulses, then we get a save in-house. Then EMS follows through with the patient after that.
“We are the first first-responders,” said Conner.
The majority of the time, Surry’s telecommunicators operate from the center located off Rockford Road in Dobson, but when there is a large incident, Conner said they do have the capability of setting up at the scene to help ease call traffic in the center.
“In the room, calls go from routine where they just need to talk to an officer, to my baby’s not breathing, to my son’s shot himself, to UFO sightings,” she said of the wide range of phone calls. “We get a lot of pocket dials, and we are required to call every 911 hang-up back, to make every attempt to make sure they are OK. That takes a lot of man hours.”
Just like emergency officials are required to do, telecommunicators have many hours of training to keep up with prior to starting the job and throughout their time on the job. Conner said training includes a 24-hour class on the Division of Criminal Information (DCI) terminal; 24-hour class on Emergency Medical Dispatch (EMD) system and a recertification on EMD every two years; 40 hours for emergency telecommunicator certification; 24- to 36 hours of continuing education annually; and four-hour CPR course each year.
“We do a lot of online training and courses, and others that are relevant to us. We’ve done some active shooter training,” she said.
Once hired, a two-week training period includes policies, procedures, getting to know county offices and leaders, and going through various scenarios which might be handled on a call. Then additional training could take anywhere from eight weeks to six months, depending on how quickly a person gets the handle on dispatching duties.
“There is a huge shortage across the state, because it is a difficult skill set to have, and beyond that, they have to have the heart to do it,” said Conner. “I’m so proud of my guys, because they do have the heart. You leave mentally exhausted.”
Just as other jobs continue to evolve with the ever-growing technology world, so are the roles of telecommunicators. Conner said already cell phone calls can be pin-pointed to a caller’s specific GPS location, updating as it moves. For Sprint and T-Mobile customers, the center also can receive text-to-911 service calls.
While it is getting less frequent with the availability of texting, the 911 center can receive TDD and TTY calls on a special machine which is used by people with restricted hearing and those who are deaf.
“911 is changing and evolving. We have a new phone system that should be live in May,” said Conner, adding that the next generation of 911 will likely incorporate things going into the online cloud and coming back to dispatchers.
She said leaders in the 911 industry expect videos to be incorporated into calls, so that callers can send those along to dispatchers, meaning that invisible barrier a telecommunicator has being able to only hear a call will be lifted and they will be able to also have eyes on the call.
“We could get a gory scene to an active something happening like someone trying to save themselves, to pocket hang-ups. It will be a big change for how we receive and take things,” she said of what may be coming in the future. “It’s not next week or next month, it isn’t around the corner, but it’s on the horizon.”
During 2016, Surry County Communications Center had 172,663 calls that were 911 and administrative calls; 197,536 computer-aided dispatch (CAD) calls; and 552,592 radio transmissions between EMS, fire and sheriff, Conner reported.
“It’s like a constant juggle,” she said of taking in numerous calls while dispatching out for assistance. “We have really experienced telecommunicators. It really takes that to keep up with all the call volume.”
Telecommunicators are continuously monitoring numerous radio channels such as the main sheriff channel, main EMS, three secondary EMS, fire’s F4, Mount Airy Fire and Elkin Fire.
Telecommunicators from area counties also work together. They transfer calls back and forth, especially when a call comes in near a county line that may have hit a tower outside the county the caller is in, and a new plan for Surry County has it working with dispatchers in Stokes County as a back up for each other in case one center goes down.
“This week is to thank them and recognize them for the job they do. We bought pizza and doughnuts for the shifts, and Salem Baptist Church brought us a huge basket of treats.”
Conner also had tips for people to remember when the need comes for then to dial 911. “If they call 911, remember we’re here to help. We will ask first where you are and we’ll send something. We’ll ask a lot of questions, but they are all for good to make sure responders are informed,” she said. “Our job is to keep you calm.”
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.