By Stephen Smoot
Over the past month, Pendleton County’s emergency response team has seen a much higher than usual number of fires and other calls. Telecommunicators handling area 911 service report that the number of calls rose to even higher levels than usual this time of year. More calls have put more stress on both the system and the responders.
Diana Mitchell, administrator of the county 911 center, said that much of the increase has come from “full blown structure fires.” She adds that “we’ve never had that many in that short of a time frame. It’s more than we usually have in a whole season, meaning the winter months.”
More calls place more strain on a system that already faces staffing shortages. As Rick Gillespie, emergency services coordinator for Pendleton County, explains, most of the time, “there’s a single dispatcher. If we have a big emergency, it goes from totally quiet to you can’t do things fast enough.”
Mitchell said, “It’s like going from zero to 120 in the blink of an eye.” Chuck King, one of the county’s 911 telecommunicators, shared that “last night we got six calls in less than an hour.”
Fortunately, callers can usually rely on experience at the other end of the line. Both Mitchell and King have served at the center since its opening in the spring of 2001.
Officials have moved from using the term “dispatchers” to “telecommunicators” in recent years. This reflects the addition of vital pieces of technology that help the telecommunicator play a stronger role in coordination, but also require more ability and experience. Use of both the phone in tandem with computer and online resources requires more of these workers than ever. Eighteen states, including West Virginia, have legally reclassified the status of 911 telecommunicators as “first responders,” to recognize the importance of their role in successful rescues.
Gillespie backs the move to redefine the position, saying that “they are the first responders. They may not go to the scene, but they are the first to respond.”
When calls come in, especially simultaneously, it leads to what Gillespie calls “multitasking on steroids.” The 911 responder must take the call and almost always must follow a script to make sure that responding units have the proper information. While some express annoyance at script based questioning, or providing the same information more than once, questions can assist telecommunicators in dispatching the proper type of ambulance, for instance. Other cards help telecommunicators talk callers through specific emergencies, such as those requiring emergency CPR on the spot.
As the telecommunicator asks questions, information populates on one screen. Another screen helps the telecommunicator identify precisely where the call is located.
In many cases, especially structure fires, units from multiple fire houses, often in multiple counties, will respond. The telecommunicator must coordinate all of these efforts to ensure the most efficient response. With no more than two, usually only one, telecommunicator available to handle emergencies, multiple simultaneous calls put serious strain on the telecommunicator, as well as the system itself. When helpful, the telecommunicators will call the original caller back to check on progress.
Keeping up with the advances in technology and techniques requires regular training, regardless of level of experience. Mitchell says that “it’s a lengthy program to get certifications and these certifications are maintained.” King adds that many require 24 or 48 hours for each certification each year.
One major source of frustration for those needing emergency response comes when the response does not come as rapidly as the caller might wish. Gillespie explains that “all volunteer agencies are having staffing problems.” King adds that “we don’t have the volunteer resources that we had 15 years ago.”
Mitchell also explains that the team understands the frustration when responses seem long, saying that “we’re catching most of these callers at the worst moments of their lives and we completely understand that.”