A Bedford County’s emergency services telecommunicator may serve as a birthing coach, an on-duty police officer’s critical information provider, a CPR instructor, a guide for volunteers responding to a fire, a line for a distressed victim of crime and much more.
Manning the county’s 911 center takes a special kind of person, said Emergency Services Director David Cubbison. He and the county are celebrating National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, April 14-20, to recognize the role of dispatchers as the “first and most critical contact” callers have when an emergency occurs.
The county’s 911 center dispatches calls for the 50,000 residents in Bedford County and, since about two years ago, for another 13,400 in Fulton County, plus the callers who pass through those two counties on three major highways and smaller roadways. In a year, it’s about 80,000 calls the staff has to handle.
Ten full-time dispatchers and eight part-timers man the center around the clock, all in 12-hour shifts, tracking emergencies via several monitors at their stations; a headset keeps 911 calls in their ears at all times.
Cara Neatrour, the unofficial dean of the telecommunications corps, has seen dispatching capabilities change vastly since she first became an employee for the center when it was housed in the courthouse basement. Back then, dispatchers filled out cards and used binders with different protocols they had to leaf through to get direction on who to send when an emergency arose.
Now, the computer-aided dispatch, or CAD, software automatically puts up all the information a telecommunicator needs when a fire, police or medical emergency is called in.
As much as Cubbison and his staff through the years have advised and admonished the public that 911 is for emergencies only, callers sometimes violate that rule. Last Friday, for example, someone called 911 to get information on fish dinners at Imler Area Fire Company. Don Earley took the call, politely telling the caller he couldn’t help with information on a dinner. That’s one of the annoying calls that, fortunately in that instance, came during a slower period.
When these kinds of calls come in, they still have to be professional and be ready to help with a real emergency, Cubbison said.
They also have to be good at multi-tasking.
“This job is not for everyone. In fact, there are few who can handle it,” he said. The “stress and overload” are there on a daily basis. “It’s a fast-paced, fast-moving business.”
In many instances, the county’s dispatchers already had some background in emergency services before they joined the center. Neatrour was a first responder and emergency medical technician before she was hired.
Karen Waybright, who has 11 years of experience at the center, was with Bedford Area Ambulance, and her husband is a firefighter and EMT. That experience “does help me see both sides – how it is out there, how it is in here,” she said, sitting at her 911 station.
Cubbison said in addition to taking calls from the public, telecommunicators are sometimes the single link for a police officer who may be patrolling on his or her own.
“Law enforcement is out there and they’re exposed,” Cubbison said. “Their first line of communication is right here a lot of the time.”
His staff is counted on to input information on warrants for local police, run license plates and other tasks to assist law enforcement.
They also provide life-saving instruction through CPR, a part of their training. Waybright said she doesn’t dread the call when it comes — and eventually it does. And she’s fielded “many, many” CPR calls.
“I don’t dread it because I know I’m going to be able to give instructions to be able to save that life.” And she has.
“I’ve had a few (calls) when it’s made a difference and it’s saved lives,” Waybright said.
In 2014, she fielded another kind of emergency call that helped bring life into the world when a mother called in to say her daughter was about to give birth. A baby girl was delivered via help of Waybright and 911.
Earley said he likes the job, despite its stresses. He works part time for Bedford ambulance so he also knows both sides of the 911 medical emergency call.
“I enjoy helping, doing my little part that I can,” he said.
Memorable days include fires that required a lot of help from many volunteer firefighters and professional personnel. One of those days included the tire fire in Everett in March of 2016 when crews from eight counties and four states were called in for the massive, stubborn blaze.
“These guys have everyday situations that would curl people’s hair,” Cubbison said, “and then they have the big ones.”
There was the January 2007 fire that gutted the three-story Founders Crossing building in Bedford. A more recent, hectic shift, dispatcher said, was an afternoon earlier this month when six brush fires in Bedford County and a barn fire in Fulton County had crews from across the county rushing to keep on top of fast-moving flames during a windy day.
“That was one of the days I felt overwhelmed because of all the activity,” Earley said. “We handled everything and got everything where they needed to go.”
Getting crews to the proper locations is dependent on the mapping which became crucial when the county went to the CAD system. Tammy Lashinsky, GIS mapper for the department, makes sure when a telecommunicator answers “911. What’s the address of your emergency?” that dispatchers know the origin of the call and where to dispatch emergency responders.
Harry Corley is the 911 coordinator who keeps the department and its crew staffed around the clock.
He and Lashinsky, “keep this place going,” Cubbison said, and make sure telecommunicators can do their jobs which Neatrour said is pretty basic.
“My job is to assure public safety and get them help as quickly as possible,” Neatrour said.