Who Ya Gonna Call?
Imagine you are heading home in your car to Hatteras Island after a long day in Virginia. You have spent all morning taking your elderly mother to various doctors, and both of you are anxious and exhausted. As you are about to cross the Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet, traffic is stopped suddenly. No one ahead of you knows what is going on. So what do you do? Call 9-1-1, naturally. And that is just what happened in December 2013 when the bridge, the only land route to and from the island, was abruptly shut down for safety reasons. Take that worried daughter’s call and multiply it by dozens over the course of a few minutes. “They shut it right that second, and that’s when we started getting the calls,” said Trey Piland, communications director at Dare Central Communications Center. “We must’ve gotten 200 or 300 calls just that hour. It was constant ringing with just five people on duty.”
FACT: Once every 4.7 seconds, someone is contacting Dare County’s 9-1-1 Center.
The folks who called 9-1-1 that day weren’t unusual – they were scared, angry, worried or felt endangered; some just wanted information. Telecommunicators were fielding questions from people desperate for answers they didn’t have. Where am I supposed to go? Who’s going to take care of my sick husband who is alone waiting for me? What about my medicine that’s at the house? Piland said the bridge incident is just one recent big event that Dare’s 9-1-1 staff have handled. Every summer, with hundreds of thousands of visitors added to the mix, on days with dangerous rip currents, when a tropical storm hits, things can also get pretty hairy. Calls come in to the center from all six towns and 19 fire departments, plus from the communities in unincorporated Dare, including all of Hatteras Island. Then there are calls for assistance from the National Park Service and other federal and state agencies and even neighboring counties.
“If you can think of a public service, it could be routed through us,” he said. “If somebody sees something going on, they’ll call us.” Not everybody can handle that kind of pressure. “You have to be someone who has an outlet for stress – who has a way of dealing with stress,” Beth Edens, a 26-year veteran at Dare Central, said in a recent interview between calls, her work station screens glowing behind her. “You can’t hold it in.” Edens said that communicators must learn to compartmentalize their stress and to decompress, whether with exercise or a hobby.
A resident of Roanoke Island, Edens takes a philosophical approach to hostile callers, some of whom curse at or threaten the 911 operators, officially known as telecommunicators.
“You can’t take it personal,” she said. “They’re not angry at you. They’re angry because there is something that’s going on in their life right then. They’re mad at the situation they find themselves in, and they’re venting.” Dare Central is part of Sheriff Doug Doughtie’s Office. Piland, who served 12 years with the Kitty Hawk Police Department, started as director in December 2013 – just weeks before the Bonner Bridge closure. He supervises approximately 23 telecommunicators, who work four, 12-hour shifts over four consecutive days, followed by four consecutive days off.
Last year, a total of 112,441 calls were made to the center, meaning that on average, the phone rang every 28 seconds. However, at the same time that telecommunicators are answering 9-1-1 calls from the general public, they also have to monitor and respond if necessary to each radio transmission coming from emergency personnel. When you add those 664,848 broadcasts from police, firefighters, and ocean rescuers, it translates to one contact every 4.7 seconds.
In 2011, the county activated a new 800-megahertz digital radio system that allowed all public safety units to communicate with each other on the same emergency call. Microwave dishes on six towers throughout the county provide broader coverage and as many as 500 channels. The best thing about the system – which is not available on many older police scanners – is that everyone who is working during an incident can talk to one another on the same, dedicated channel. “The coverage is much better,” Piland said. “It’s clearer and you can get out at more places.”
Situated on the second floor of the building that also houses the Dare County Detention Center, and across the hall from the county emergency management hub, the 9-1-1 center has six phone stations for telecommunicators. Each person wears a telephone headpiece and sits in front of six computer monitors of maps that pinpoint the caller’s signal location, with menus to designate the type of call and the response. As a call comes in, one person will pick it up, make a determination of its nature and enter a code and any pertinent notes. If it is a call requiring advanced training and expertise, such as a medical emergency, the call will be routed to the appropriate staff member on duty. Often, one person will continue talking to the caller, while another telecommunicator dispatches emergency help. Screens display active calls and active response units with their location and time of arrival.
On a recent call to the center, telecommunicator Kim Twiddy answered an emergency call from a doctor’s office. “Tell me exactly what happened,” she said, her voice calm and measured. There was a pause while she listened, making the background beeping noise in the room suddenly noticeable. With her training in emergency medical response, Twiddy was able to ask the right questions and discern that the caller was describing someone who may be in diabetic distress. “OK, we’re going to get her some help,” Twiddy reassured the caller. “Stay on the phone with me.” Meanwhile, at the next console, Richard Lewis paged Dare County EMS and Nags Head Fire and Rescue, providing the address and the nature of the call. Soon, a voice responded to say someone was en route. With each step, Lewis clicked different places on his screens to track the progress of the call from start to finish.
Lewis, a Manteo resident who has been at the job for 24 years, said that his most rewarding experience at the center was giving CPR instructions to the girlfriend of the son of a man in cardiac arrest, as the son worked on his father. “He survived,” Lewis said, pride evident in his voice. Lewis added that it really hit home later when a paramedic pulled Lewis aside and said, “What you did – you saved a man’s life.” Edens, who was showing novice Jayme Price the ropes that day, agreed. “There’s a gentleman still walking around Manteo because of Richard,” she said. But those kind of warm fuzzies are the high points of a job that more often may be mundane or frustrating. It can also be sad, considering that 9-1-1 may be the only resource for those in desperate circumstances. On a few occasions, Lewis said, callers have even threatened to kill him. Sometimes, callers are high on drugs or alcohol and are hard to decipher. Some don’t speak or understand English and operators have to stay on the line while waiting for a translator.
“Some days it can be challenging, stressful,” he said. “Some days you feel good helping people.”
The toughest calls often involve other emergency personnel, who become like family to 9-1-1 communicators. Twiddy recalled handling an incident that involved a grueling rescue of a park ranger, a coastguardsman and a sheriff’s deputy, during a hurricane. The men had to tie themselves together to survive. “I think that’s the only time I cried in 10 years,” Twiddy said.
Then there are the calls from folks who seem to regard 9-1-1 as the font of all county information, or the county complaint box, or the county fix-it-center. A sampling: My keys are locked in my car. My cable/power is out. What time is sunset? Can you tell me where I am? What was that noise? There’s no porta-potty on the bridge for drivers stuck in traffic. The all-you-can-eat buffet ran out of oysters. (Really.)
“My favorite is the drunk who wants a ride home from a police officer,” Ricki Burrus said with a wry laugh. The pat response? ‘Call a cab,’ of course. Calls can be for just about anything, ranging from a sea turtle washing up on the beach to gunshots. One recent call reported a dog that had fallen through the ice. (It was rescued.)
A telecommunicator, according to the Sheriff’s Web site, “must be a self-thinker” and possess “a considerable degree of initiative and independent judgment.” But there are procedures and standards that must be upheld in responding to the public, Piland said. To start, training is provided in a North Carolina Justice Academy program, and each telecommunicator must have a combination of additional training and/or experience to deal with each type of call: sheriff’s office and ancillary agencies; town law enforcement; fire; and EMS and ocean rescue. New staff such as Price will practice first with calls that come into the center’s non-emergency, administrative line. “We want someone with good moral character,” Piland said. “You’re entrusted with a lot of personal information. They hear people at their worst, when they’re scared and most vulnerable. When nothing else can solve your problem, you call 9-1-1.” Photography by Susan Selig Classen except as noted. ♦