Telecommunicators explain connecting responders with citizens
Alamance Central Communications staff members work hard to ensure that citizens who need help receive the assistance they need in a timely fashion
By Kate Croxton
ALAMANCE COUNTY, N.C. — Throughout the city, county, state and nation, people work every minute of every day to ensure that citizens receive the best care imaginable. Although they are rarely in the spotlight, telecommunicators do more than citizens think.
Alamance Central Communications, known as C Comm, is in downtown Graham. There, around 28 telecommunicators work hard to ensure that citizens who need help — whether it be a fire, a burglary or a cat in the tree — receive the assistance they need in a timely fashion.
Supervisor William Perry and Director Dexter Brower say they look for people who are calm, caring, compassionate and committed to getting the job done.
“All those descriptors that you can use to find someone that is truly passionate about their profession but also truly passionate about helping people and being a service to the community,” Brower said. “It takes a special individual to do the job.”
Brower described telecommunicators as a nucleus that holds all the emergency departments together.
“I feel like that is truly us, the job that we do, because you see the fire truck with the red lights and the firemen, you see the police car with the blue lights and the ambulance with the red lights, but you never really see the folks that are what I would consider the glue that is pulling everything together,” Brower said. “That is us. Not only are we pulling those resources together, we are also taking care of the needs of the citizens at the same time.”
Brower joked that C Comm faces everything from astrology to zoology since full moons seem to be a weird factor in telecommunicators and their jobs.
“I don’t know if it is something to do with gravitational pull or whatever, but full moons do seem to have a bearing on what we do,” Brower said.
One of the more difficult parts of being a telecommunicator is multitasking. Telecommunicators are constantly receiving information about incidents and have to update what they know. This can be stressful for telecommunicators as they are constantly recorded.
“You are talking about a profession where our folks have to bat a thousand because everything that they say, or everything that they do not say, is recorded,” Brower said. “That within itself will also create stress within an individual when it comes to doing a job.”
Another hard part is the hours and the stress that goes hand in hand with the hours, which can cause high turnover.
“Turnover in our profession is a problem across the board,” Brower said. “It is an issue not only for Alamance County, but it is an issue for other counties in the state and other states within our country. It has been proven that the stress that our folks are under — the hours, being away from your family, all these different holidays — it takes a toll on an individual.”
Getting callers help
On an average, a dayshift telecommunicator in Alamance County will go in between 4:45 and 5:45 in the morning and work until 4:45 or 5:45 at night, which is when the nightshift workers come in.
They try to answer 911 calls by the second ring, and they try to prepare for anything on the other end of the line. Both shifts see around seven telecommunicators.
“They never know what is going to happen on those — what kind of call they are going to have on the other side,” Perry said. “Also they never know when they are talking to somebody if that is going to be the last time that [the citizens] are able to talk to anybody. You have to be that caring person and willing to help somebody. The main thing is to get them help.”
Along with the full-time workers, Brower said, about 10 part-time telecommunicators help balance the load.
“We have enough staffing in place, but we have these storms and all these other events that come through that really tax our staffing, and we have to bring in extra people,” Brower said. “We are about always looking for part-time staffing, and also that helps us to have an individual that is well trained if we have a vacancy or an opening in our full-time staff.”
Most part time workers choose the days they work as well as the hours.
Nightshift workers receive more high priority calls, such as gunshots and domestic violence calls, Perry said.
“It is a different world, nightshift. A lot of things happen in nighttime that don’t happen during the daytime,” Perry said.
Although the worlds may be different, telecommunicators receive the same general training no matter the shift.
Brower explained that C Comm uses National Academies of Emergency Dispatch protocols for medical and fire, and is working on using it for police as well. However, even though C Comm uses a script that shows up on telecommunicators’ computer screens for each situation to ask the correct questions during an incident, the best way citizens can help is to tell telecommunicators their locations as soon as possible.
“One of the keys if you can’t say anything, leave the phone open,” Brower said. “Leave a line open so we can pick up on background noises. If you can’t speak or make a voice call, then text 911. We’d rather that we have that voice call, but at the same time, we have seen where robberies and things like that have taken place, and people can get down behind the counters or whatever and can send a quick text.”
Cellphones can be tricky to pinpoint the exact location of because they show the nearest tower location, Brower explained.
“It is imperative to us that we get the address or the location where the caller is at, but we do have technology in place to where we can retransmit — where we see the call come in, we see the tower site, and we retransmit, and we go back out to the tower site, and then hopefully when it comes in the second time, it is pinpointing an address for us,” Brower said.
However, weather and cellphone technology could stop the tracking technology from working, so it is best simply to say the location right away.
“First thing we want is the address,” Brower said. “As long as we know where to send [emergency services], we can send them.”
Another problem telecommunicators can face is when a major wreck occurs and the switchboard is filled with calls from citizens.
“We have Interstate 85 and 40 running through the heart of our county. We have U.S. 70 out there and a couple of major state highways, and so we sit in the heart of things,” Brower said. “‘When all those cars are smashing up on the interstate, guess who is getting all those calls? The 911 center. Guess what else is taking place? The normal day to day business: the house fire, the heart attack, whatever the officers are doing. All that is still taking place. It doesn’t stop because this major event is taking place.”
C Comm filters 600–650 calls a day, Perry said, and callers are never put on hold or hung up on.
“If you dial 911 in Alamance County, you get us,” Brower said.
To become a telecommunicator, there are only two requirements: a high school diploma, and passing the CritiCall System test, which tests multitasking skills, memorization, prioritizing, map reading, reading comprehension and spelling.
When it comes to certification, although it is not required for telecommunicators, they have several options.
Two are Emergency Medical Dispatch and Emergency Fire Dispatch. Both train telecommunicators on specific questions to ask in certain situations, such as fires and CPR.
Another certification is the N.C. Sheriff’s Standard Training for Telecommunicators.
Last week, some full- and part-time telecommunicators took the 47-hour course, which began Sunday, June 17, and ended Friday, June 22, after the participants took the state exam. Alamance Community College teamed up with Highway Patrol to offer the class for free to the participants for the first time ever.
“They approached us about it because they wanted to enhance the training. They wanted to get all of their people trained the same way,” said Gene Perry, the director of in-service law enforcement training.
Brower said as the Sheriff’s Standard Training evolved over time, C Comm realized it had to get on board to set a standard for the telecommunicators. However, the class usually was offered only in Salemburg and Edneyville.
“Throughout the years, we would get lucky enough to happen up on a course somewhere in Orange County or Rockingham County or one of the other locations,” Brower said. “Trying to get new people in and trained and then get off for a week in order to attend a class became quite an undertaking for us.”
By having the class at ACC, seven telecommunicators could receive their certification within Alamance County.
“It is really outstanding, as well as the standards that have been established, because now that same training we are getting right here in our own backyard,” Brower said. “We have a standard in place, and now they are making it more feasible, more available to use to get all our people through this training so we can be established.”
Connie Gantin, the class coordinator and shift supervisor with the Highway Patrol, had two other instructors help teach the course. Gantin explained the certification is required for all employees of a police communications center who answer to a sheriff’s department. While C Comm does not do that directly, it’s a volunteer department. The certification would make the telecommunicators state certified telecommunicators.
Gantin said the participants learned interpersonality communications, radio procedure, civil liability, broadcast techniques and communications resources. “They are learning the background, of course, because every department is going to have their specific policies and procedures,” Gantin said.
They also practiced dispatching outcalls and a cumulative exercise at the end of the week to show what they learned. Although they were not graded on the exercises, it helped the participants receive feedback.
“Our job is to teach, teach, teach, and get them ready, make sure everyone is well versed on every topic, and hope for the best,” Gantin said.
Perry said ACC hopes to host the class again for other agencies once all of C Comm’s telecommunicators are trained.
“Depending on our availability, we are going to do more of these types of schools. Then we are going to open it up to other agencies,” Perry said. “I think we are onto something here, and we are going to do it as many times a year as we can.”
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