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911 operators: We are first responders

Every April, public safety telecommunication personnel are honored for their dedication and service through National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week


Theirs are the first voices people hear during the worst moments of life.

AP Photo/Dave Collins

By Ron Leonardi
Erie Times-News, Pa.

SUMMIT TOWNSHIP — Theirs are the first voices people hear during the worst moments of life.

Inside the dispatch center of Erie County’s 25,000-square-foot 911 Center on Flower Road in Summit Township, public safety telecommunicators scan a multitude of computer screens.

On busy days, each might handle more than 100 phone calls during an 8-hour shift.

Some perform call-taking duties. Others are dispatchers. Shift commanders oversee. All work together to process an array of emergency calls and send various emergency services hustling to a location based on the nature of the call.

“I hope people will see that the telecommunicators are the first first responders,” said Megan Whitby, 32, a 911 Center shift commander. “People have to call here for help and we dispatch fire, police, medical. We’re kind of the unseen heroes, in my opinion. We provide CPR instruction, we save lives, sometimes we don’t, we hear babies cry and moms saying goodbye to their children. We hear it all. I hope the community realizes what everybody here does is to help the community, but also it’s a tough job and not everybody can do it.”

Each year during the second week of April, the nation’s public safety telecommunication personnel are honored for their dedication and service through National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week. It was established in 1981 by the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office in California.

“I hope the community gets more knowledge of what we do and will understand more about why we do the things we do,” Whitby said.

The Summit Township 911 center averages 458 calls every 24-hour cycle. That computes to a monthly call average of 10,000 to 14,000 calls and a yearly average call total of about 167,000, according to John Grappy, the county’s public safety director.

Each of the center’s three shifts -- 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., 2 p.m. to 10 p.m., and 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. -- is staffed by a shift supervisor and a minimum of nine telecommunicators.

“With no disrespect intended to any other profession, the public safety telecommunicator is a professional, highly skilled position that requires, initially from the time they’re hired to the time before they can even answer a 911 call, 520 hours minimum of specialized training,” Grappy said. “That includes academic and on-the-job training with local, state and, in some instances, national certifications to be able to process 911 calls. That’s for law, fire and emergency medical services. Really, what National Telecommunicators Week is about is to recognize and a week of appreciation for the difficult jobs they do on a daily basis. On a regular basis, they’re in a high-stress, negative environment.”

Grappy describes his center’s more than 40 public safety telecommunicators as “a person answering the phone in your greatest time of need.” And those needs run the emergency gamut.

On some medical calls, a public safety telecommunicator might have to provide a caller with information about how to control bleeding, or talk someone out of committing suicide and get that person help, or, as one county 911 telecommunicator encountered two weeks ago, explain emergency childbirth procedures to help a mom deliver a baby before medical personnel arrived.

Lou DePonceau, 33, a telecommunicator with the Erie County Department of Public Safety since 2009, recently helped a father whose 2-year-old daughter was sick and congested. The girl started to choke on her own mucus and had stopped breathing when the father called 911.

“Getting her breathing where you could hear her crying out and breathing air and being scared, and with the dad and me on the line, that was a great feeling,” DePonceau said. “She was a little bit upset, but we had the ambulance there right away and between me and the father, he seemed to know enough about how to get CPR started. It was a good call. I took him through it and he already was getting her airway cleared out when he got on the phone with me. All I had to do was sit back and tell him to just keep monitoring her airway as we got the airway cleaned out.”

The girl was OK, and that call, DePonceau said, made for a really good work day.

When people call 911 dispatch, they can expect to be asked several questions that do not delay response time.

“We are here to help, and a lot of the issues we encounter is the public doesn’t understand why we’re asking our questions,” DePonceau said. “One of the things we ask the public to do is take a minute from their emergency just to realize that whatever we’re asking them does have merit. We’re trying to get them efficient help in the quickest way possible. We’re asking questions so our responders know exactly what’s going on.”

John Semple, 47, has spent the past seven years as a county 911 telecommunicator. Before that, he worked as a telecommunicator at EmergyCare for 18 years.

“After 25 years, you know the true emergencies when they come in and you know when there’s situations where it’s not a really a big emergency but it’s more where they just need somebody to talk to,” Semple said.

Semple said many callers mistakenly believe that the 911 telecommunicators they are reporting their emergencies to will also be the first responders who travel to the emergency location.

“They’re like. ‘Get off the phone and get here,’ ” Semple said. “We tell them we have help on the way, but they don’t want to listen to that. They still think you’re the one who’s coming and it’s hard to get them to understand what’s going on.”

(c)2017 the Erie Times-News (Erie, Pa.)