DOBSON — This week is the perfect time for everyone to take a moment and thank an often unsung group — the emergency telecommunicator or 911 dispatcher. That’s because this week is National Telecommunicator Appreciation Week.
April 11 through April 15 is recognized as National Telecommunicator Appreciation Week. While the men and women of the emergency dispatch field work around the clock to make sure their communities are safe, many times they are a part of the emergency services network that gets forgotten since they are a face most people will probably never see.
The Surry County 911 Center has 13 full-time telecommunicators. The center is manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week by four three-person shifts, working 12 hour shifts, and those are supplemented with one peak shift working during the busiest hours. There is also a fully-trained and certified part-time staff to assist when someone is out and the administrative staff to assist during busy times. These are the people who will answer when anyone in Surry County makes an emergency call, be it from a cell phone or landline or even via radio.
Gerald Hicks is one of those full-time employees. He has been a telecommunicator since 2006 and started working in Surry in 2011.
“My favorite part of the job is helping people,” Hicks said. “I also have great co-workers and a great working environment. Coming back each day is like a new adventure.”
He explained that you never know coming in each morning what you’re going to be dealing with that shift. One day there might be a chemical spill on the interstate. Another day it might be really hot outside and the center deals with a lot of heat exposure, respiratory distress and cardiac related calls. The next day the center may be busy handling a string of larcenies and breaking-and-entering calls. Or the day could be spent handling a deluge of calls in all areas. You just never know.
“My favorite part is that every day is different,” said Nick Brown, Assistant Director for the Communications Center. “A telecommunicator never knows what call is going to come in when they sit down in that chair.”
Brown has worked as a telecommunicator for 11 years, many of those as a supervisor, before taking over the assistant director position in 2015.
While Hicks felt like dispatchers do tend to go unrecognized, he thought there was a good reason for it. “We just aren’t the ones responding like law enforcement, fire and EMS,” he said. “We are behind the scenes in CCOM, answering the phones and sending people help.”
Brown agreed. “We are the ones who are never seen,” he said. When you call 911, someone answers and they send help. That’s how it always works so it’s easy to take that for granted when there is always someone there.
The telecommunicator is often called the first-first responder. This is because they will obtain call, patient and scene information for the first responders and even give initial medical care prior to anyone
arriving on the scene. Then the first responders arrive, followed by paramedics. Or if the call is for law enforcement or fire, then they will be the first to arrive on scene. And it’s part of the telecommunicator’s job to make sure that they know what kind of scene they are going to.
“The most important part of a telecommunicator’s job is the ability of that call taker to quickly receive data from a caller that can vividly paint a picture of what the scene is going to be like for the responders,” Brown said. “The 911 operators are the eyes of the responders before they arrive on the scene of an incident. 911 telecommunicators have to quickly make decisions on scene safety without ever even being there.”
Most of the calls through the center are routine but sometimes the calls are very memorable, either because of the end result or the call itself. Brown said one of his most memorable calls was giving instructions for a mother to deliver a pair of twin boys. Other calls include a police stand-off and a shooting call in Mount Airy. And of course, he will never forget the plane crash in Holly Springs in 2008. There are still recordings on YouTube that feature him paging all the units to the call.
Another telecommunicator, Karen Ratliff, has been with the center since 2010 and is now a shift supervisor. For Ratliff, her most memorable call was the first shooting call she took. It was a self-inflicted gun-shot wound and the victim’s wife was the caller.
“It was that call that I realized for the first time that we really make a difference. Even if all we can do is listen, sometimes that is enough,” Ratliff said.
On one particularly memorable and bad call Hicks did receive appreciation for his part in. Hicks was working as the law enforcement dispatcher one night when there was an officer-involved shooting in Dobson where one of the officers was actually shot. Hicks handled all the radio traffic for the officers while the two other telecommunicators handled EMS, fire and rescue dispatch as well as call-taking for the other calls coming in at the time.
“The sergeant called in the next shift and said that things could not have went any better during that bad situation and he thanked us for what we did,” Hicks said. “It made us feel great that he thought to recognize what we did and that he realized calls such as that affect us in CCOM also.”
Ratliff also received thanks from a field unit. “It was a member of the rescue squad who I had sent officers to check on because he wouldn’t answer his radio on the scene of a call,” she said. “It really made me feel appreciated that he knew we were watching out for him.”
Brown said he has also received recognition for a call that went well.
“It made me feel good,” he said. “There is a whole lot of teamwork that goes into the successful completion of a call. That is the part that I enjoy the most about a call that goes good. The feeling that the whole shift feels when we have had a positive impact on someone.”
Being a telecommunicator isn’t an easy job but it’s a rewarding one Brown explained, even if that reward isn’t in public accolades. No one at the center is in it for that anyways.
“The majority of our calls are taken when someone is having the worst situation of their life,” he said. People don’t call 911 when things are going well but rather when things have gone wrong and they need
help. No one decides to get a job as a dispatcher so they can get recognized or get thanked. They do it to help others.
“We get forgotten because we’re behind the scenes,” Ratliff said. “But I love being able to help people. And that’s what we’re here for.”
“The job is very stressful but it is rewarding at the same time,” Brown added.
To celebrate National Telecommunicator Appreciation Week, Brown said that the center was allowing the dispatchers to “dress down” all week instead of wearing full uniform each day. They will also be having special activities for each shift to make them feel appreciated. Then on Friday, the center will be celebrating with a cook out, a rare opportunity for every employee to get together and see each other that only happens once a year.