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911 The heroes behind the mayhem

by James Fisher

REGIONAL WRITER

"911, what's your emergency?"

In the years that emergency 911 systems have gained national prominence, those words have been spoken thousands of times by dispatchers all across the country.

Although police officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians are the faces that respond to emergency calls, dispatchers are the often-unsung heroes behind the mayhem.

"We answer questions on behalf of the police, fire departments and the ambulance services to determine what kind of help to send and how much help to send," said Capt. Gary Williams of the Harrison County Bureau of Emergency Services.

Area public safety telecommunicators are being honored this week during National Telecommunicators Week, Williams said, which originated in 1981 with the Contra Costa County (California) Sheriff's Office. It soon spread across the country, and became a national event in 1992 with a proclamation by President George Bush.

Dispatchers from Harrison and several other counties were treated to a picnic Sunday. Police and other emergency responders were invited to stop by to meet the people who are ordinarily just a voice on the radio.

Williams, who has been with the Harrison County bureau since 1988, has worked on both sides of the radio. Prior to starting at the bureau, he volunteered with the Bridgeport Fire Department for several years.

That invaluable experience has enabled him to better help new dispatchers understand their jobs and responsibilities with respect to the actual responders.

"We try to teach dispatchers to think like a field responder," he said. "They need to know what the police and firefighters need to know and be able to ask those questions."

Asking questions of a caller -- often agitated and emotional -- is tough and takes patience and understanding, said Cpl. Peggy Kesner.

"Something that people don't understand is that when a call comes in, we process information in a certain way," she said. "We need to ask questions and verify the nature of the crisis.

"I think a lot of people get tired of answering the questions because they think it's holding up the response," she said. "Most people don't realize that once the call comes in, two dispatchers are working together -- one to gather the information and the other to immediately start dispatching the proper responders."

The 24 dispatchers for Harrison County are responsible for nearly every emergency response agency in the county -- 17 fire departments, including Flemington in Taylor County; nine municipal police departments, Harrison County deputy sheriffs, state Division of Natural Resources and animal control, Williams said. Dispatchers also have a secondary link to the Bridgeport detachment of the West Virginia State Police.

"The dispatchers are persons out here every day and they answer more than 100 calls a day," he said. "We're already over 15,000 calls for this year and it's only the middle of April."

While the very nature of the job is stressful, other factors don't make it any easier on the dispatchers, Williams said.

"Police, firefighters, paramedics, they all get a recovery period between calls," he said. "We eat our meals here at the console and don't necessarily get that recovery period.

"Unlike a police officer who can call out of service for half an hour for lunch, we can't go out of service here," he said. "It's also a completely non-tobacco facility. We don't even have any windows. Right now I couldn't tell you if it's night or day."

Kesner said the most exciting aspect of the job is the fact that dispatchers never know what to expect from day to day or even minute to minute.

"At times, you can sit there for seven hours and 20 minutes and in the last 40 minutes of a shift everything goes sour, as Gary (Williams) likes to say," she said. "There are no typical days in the (communication) center."

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