Tar Heel of the Week

Top N.C. 911 call taker lauded for 'superhuman effort'

Wake center’s top employee plays down 5,269 she answered in one month of record-breaking year

CorrespondentDecember 8, 2012 

TARHEEL-NE-120512-TEL

Emergency operator Heather Corbett Whitaker receives calls Wednesday, December 5, 2012, at Raleigh’s 911 call center. Corbett Whitaker rose to the occasion as the center dealt with an unprecedented influx of mistake 911 calls earlier this year. Her record of more than 3,000 calls in one month helped her earn the honor of statewide 911 employee of the year.

TRAVIS LONG — tlong@newsobserver.com

  • Heather Whitaker Born: Dec. 22, 1977, Garner Residence: Raleigh Career: 911 Operator, Wake County Emergency Services Education: B.S., Textile Management, N.C. State University Family: Husband, two children, 12 and 5 Fun Fact: One of Whitaker’s hobbies might not seem like much of a break after dealing with emergency calls all day. She and her husband are both ham radio operators. Her plea: If you call 911 by mistake: Don’t hang up! Stay on the line so that the operator can ensure that you made the call in error. Otherwise, time is wasted calling you back or sending an officer to your house.

— Sloppy dialing by people adding the area code to their local calls this year has put operators at Wake County’s 911 center to the test – deluging them with a high of more than 50,000 extra calls a month.

When the pressure hit, call taker Heather Whitaker got even busier, fielding an unprecedented number of calls that earned her a statewide honor as the 911 Employee of the Year.

The 5,269 calls Whitaker answered in May represents “by far the most phone calls ever answered by one person in a month by anyone who has ever been employed here,” says Jesse Creech, a 911 supervisor. And her accuracy in dealing with the calls remained stellar.

Barry Furey, director of emergency communications for Wake County, nominated Whitaker for the award based on what he calls an “almost superhuman effort.”

“Nobody stepped up further than Heather did,” says Furey, who notes the staff overall responded well to the increased volume. “That number of calls is just phenomenal.”

Furey calls the call center “the ultimate help desk.” Operators there answer all calls to 911 in Wake County except those made in Cary, which has its own call center, dispatching officers from area police departments and emergency workers as needed.

The call center was suddenly inundated with accidental 911 calls starting March 31, the first day that people within the 919 area code had to dial the area code for local calls – a common practice when an area runs out of phone numbers.

A lot of people accidentally hit the “1” for the third number instead of “9,” and plenty continue to make the error.

Furey estimates that by the end of this year, the center will have processed up to 200,000 extra calls, including both accidental incoming calls and the extra outgoing calls operators have to make to establish whether a call was a mistake. That adds up to taking an extra 11 calls every hour.

‘Short and sweet and efficient’

From where Whitaker sits, behind seven monitors and two keyboards in the cave-like call center in the basement of the Raleigh municipal building, these extra calls come in many forms.

On a recent night shift, nearly half of the calls she took were mistakes. In between a car accident, a stolen purse, and a few possible heart attacks were the calls where she found silence at the other end of the line.

Any call that registers a return number must be called back to make sure it was a mistake; if it comes from a home and the person can’t be reached, a police officer is sent to the house.

One phone number was called three times with no answer on the callbacks. Whitaker sent an officer to check it out, though she says such calls are often made by children. Several callers hung up and couldn’t be called back because their cellphone numbers didn’t register.

One caller stayed on the line and admitted his mistake with a sheepish “wrong number, man.”

Whitaker says many callers don’t realize they’ve dialed 911. They continue dialing and ask for the person they’re trying to reach. Others quickly hang up, offering a variety of excuses when she calls them back.

“We hear about sticky keys,” she says. “People say they sat on their phone, or their dog called.”

For someone who has worked on the phone for years, Whitaker is anything but gabby. In her personal life, she says, she might make one call a week, and it tends to be short.

In fact, her aversion to idle chat may contribute to her speed on the job.

“I usually keep my conversations sweet and short and efficient,” she says.

That’s not always easy when callers are often under enormous stress. On one call after a car accident, Whitaker gently interrupts a rambling description of the accident to ask for the key details she needs for her report – descriptions of the two cars and whether an ambulance is needed.

She then assures the caller that police are on the way and types out a brief summary into a screen that will go to the officer. In about five minutes, she’s ready for the next call.

She downplays the volume of her calls, noting that the number of shifts she worked and their timing contributed to the high tally. The day shifts she typically works are busier than nights, for example.

Staying calm

Whitaker, 34, grew up in Garner, graduating from Garner Senior High School and going on to N.C. State University. She started out majoring in textile engineering and earned her degree in textile management.

She says she didn’t find a job in that field that didn’t require leaving the area, and she wanted to stay in the Triangle.

She ended up as a supervisor at a Raleigh call center that handles orders for custom framing before she took the job at the 911 center three years ago. She says the stakes might be higher dealing with emergencies. But the pace, and the stress, are similar.

“It’s the same level of anger from some of the people, but a different level of urgency,” she says. “You have to be aware and alert, because you have no time to prepare yourself for what’s going to be on the other end of the phone.”

She says a typical hour might bring two intense calls – a robbery or bad accident, for instance – while the rest will be more routine.

Once she lost her connection with a husband whose wife was giving birth in the car on the way to the hospital. When she finally got him back on the phone after several tries, the baby was already born.

Training for the job is intense, entailing several months of instruction before starting to answer calls and another month answering calls with supervision. Ongoing training keeps operators up-to-date on new policies and procedures, and constant monitoring keeps tabs on their accuracy.

There’s a lot to know, from what symptoms might signal a stroke or heart attack that needs immediate attention to what information police need to know about a robbery suspect.

Keeping an even keel under pressure is equally important. Whitaker uses the same even tone in every call, patiently gathering the information she needs and offering reassurance that is both calm and brief.

“At first it was a little overwhelming,” she says. “But once it’s drilled into your head, it becomes easier. I’m not easily stressed. That’s one thing I have going for me.”

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