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Week honors 911 dispatchers
041814 911 CENTER 01
Telecommunications officers Karen Puchala, bottom left, Judy Smith, top left, and Robert Fail man the Bulloch County 911 Center on Good Friday.

When most people enjoy Easter dinner and egg hunts with the kids Sunday, a handful of folks will be sitting behind desks, operating radios and taking emergency phone calls.

Emergency dispatchers, whether they work with law enforcement agencies or public safety 911, often sacrifice special times with friends and family in the name of duty. At all times, someone is manning the radio and answering calls in order to make sure the right people respond to dangerous situations.

That's one reason area dispatchers were honored this week as local agencies observed National Public Safety Telecommunications Week. Bulloch County Public Safety treated dispatchers on all shifts to special meals and shirts, and other agencies showed appreciation through assorted efforts.

Dispatchers deal with all kinds of situations, from simple calls from people asking mundane questions to true life-or-death emergencies, said Bulloch County 911 Director Kelly Barnard.

All too often, the calls fielded by 911 operators are not emergencies. People call asking for the correct time, what time and day local authorities will hold traditional trick-or-treating for kids on Halloween, or what time a local ball game begins, she said.

Those calls may interfere with dispatchers handling a true emergency call, she said.

Dispatchers never know what type of call will come over the lines, and often find themselves trying to calm an emotional caller while collecting information about the emergency.

"People only dial 911 once or twice in their lives," Barnard said. "They are frantic or upset and a lot of times they don't realize we (dispatchers) aren't the ones who will be responding to the call."

A call comes in, and dispatchers quickly assess the situation and decide which emergency agency should respond. Three dispatchers are on call, and two listen to callers and take information while the third contacts EMS, firefighters or any other appropriate responder.

"The information we get from callers is critical," she said. "They all work together to get responders to the scene."

There are 12 full-time and two part-time operators as well as one "floating" dispatcher at Bulloch County 911, and other agencies such as the Bulloch County Sheriff's Office, Statesboro Police, and Georgia Southern University Police maintain a staff of radio operators to help route calls.

Bulloch County 911 operators also handle calls for Evans and Candler counties.

Another problem encountered by radio operators, especially those who work for 911, are hang-up calls. Bulloch County 911 fields about 1,500 hang-up calls a month, and many are from children playing on old cellphones, Barnard said.

Even though a cellphone may not have service or "minutes," a call may still be made to 911.

"A lot of people don't know that," Barnard said.
Calls from these phones can't be returned because the service is inactive, and unless GPS can trace the call's location, responders can't check to see whether there is a real emergency.

Many calls to 911 are misdialed - callers trying to enter the 912 area code often accidentally call 911, Barnard said. If this happens, a caller only needs to explain to an operator about the mistake "to make sure we know everything is OK."

Sometimes after a school group takes a tour of the 911 office, the number of prank calls increases, she said. Calls from kids playing on the phone increase during holidays as well. Parents and teachers are encouraged to explain to children the seriousness of emergencies and keeping the 911 lines free for emergency calls, she said.

The advice goes for any emergency response agency, as sometimes callers will dial the police department or sheriff's office directly.

"Communications officers are the unsung heroes of public safety," Statesboro Public Safety Director Wendell Turner said. "They are more often than not the first contact with the public, and their job is vital to the protection of the city and the safety of our officers. They are our lifeline. The police department could not function without their dedication, talent, and hard work."
Bulloch County Public Safety Director Ted Wynn said Bulloch County 911 operators do a superb job.

"These special people handle all the emergencies in three counties. They do a wonderful job under what is sometimes very difficult circumstances," he said. "Every emergency starts with 911. ... If it is not handled appropriately from the start, it can end badly."

Bulloch County sheriff's Chief Deputy Jared Akins had high praise for his department's four dispatchers.

"They have to possess the ability to multitask constantly, make sound decisions under pressure, relate to people from all walks of life who call and function as part of a shift on which they work," he said. "Imaging trying to answer an emergency phone call for help, type information into the computer, monitor radio traffic from multiple deputies, and do all of this for 12 hours on end and you get a sense of how much they really do behind the scenes. Add to that the pressure of fitting in with a group of men and women with whom you spend more time than with your ‘off duty' family.

"I have been blessed to work with some truly fine dispatchers, and it has always been comforting to hear their voices on the other end of the radio, especially on a hot call in the middle of nowhere at o-dark thirty, miles from the nearest backup," he said. "My hat, as always, is off to them."

Holli Deal Bragg may be reached at (912) 489-9414.


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