Around the country, 911 telecommunicators are a calm voice when there’s a call for help.
“Woo-woo-woo-woo-woo! Orange County 911. What’s the address of the emergency?”
The voice on the line might be Jimmy Summey – an 18-year telecommunicator and Efland Fire Department volunteer – or Jessica Slaughter – a young mother with two years under her belt – or any of the other two dozen people behind the scenes.
They’re the “unseen heroes” backing up law enforcement, firefighters and EMS workers, interim Emergency Services director Dinah Jeffries said.
“It’s kind of a compliment, in a way, but (people) think of 911 as the entire thing. You forget this voice that’s behind the scenes, and they’re the ones that actually coordinated this for you,” she said. “They do a heck of a job, and it is a difficult job.”
Every call is different. A day shift means more calls from doctors and other facilities, interim Communications Operations Manager Kevin Medlin said. They also get more mistake calls, from busy office workers dialing 911 instead of the 919 area code.
Nighttime brings more emergencies, from auto accidents to heart attacks.
Orange County 911 telecommunicators handled 82,186 calls for service last year, relaying information to fire departments, law enforcement and emergency medical responders, while instructing callers on how to stay safe or administer first aid until help could arrive.
The number rose slightly from 80,175 calls to 911 in 2014.
They also handled 131,697 administrative calls last year, from law enforcement officers seeking backup to citizen requests and misdials.
There are “lighter” moments – the elderly woman calling to get help turning off the lights, and angry customers complaining about burger orders.
And the bad calls, which aren’t as frequent, he said, but stick with you.
The suicide victims, and the drug user who shared, “I don’t want to die,” seconds before paramedics kicked in the door to pull him back from death. The elderly caller who passed out from smoke inhalation last year while trying to escape her burning home.
“I was on the phone with her until the phone line got burned, too,” Summey said. “The firefighters got her out, but she still died of complications.”
It helps to distract yourself or find somebody and talk about it, he said.
“You build up a thick skin working here,” he said.
Orange County has been working for years to improve its 911 response, Medlin said, now averaging 98 percent of calls answered within 10 seconds. They’re also working hard to meet the National Fire Protection Association’s 90-second standard for completing a call.
It’s all part of getting help to callers faster, he said.
“You know you’ve got a job to do, and you’ve got to do it,” he said. “Just do it, like Nike said.”
Work stations are ringed with double-stacked computer screens showing callers, local emergency units, SRO officers, criminal and traffic databases, and phone and email contacts. TV screens around the room track activity at major highways and intersections, and GIS and Google maps help them pinpoint the right house in less-visible locations.
Social media – bit.ly/1VhzO2d or @OCNC on Twitter – is a new tool for sharing information, Medlin said. They also added 911 texting last year.
“Calling voice-to-voice is still the best way to get 911, but if you’re deaf or hard of hearing, or you’re in a situation where you can’t talk, you can text if you need to,” Medlin said.
What hasn’t changed are the long hours away from their families. It’s easier for him because he’s older, Summey said, but co-workers with children miss out on birthdays, holidays, and school and athletic events. They try to celebrate together when they work the holidays.
“A lot of people who come in here don’t realize you’re 365,” he said. “All day, somebody’s got to work.”
That makes it hard to fill vacancies. Most 911 telecommunicators are veterans – with 19 years or more – or have been on the job less than three years. They work in four shifts of five people, 12 hours at a time, a few days on and a few days off. Once a month, day and night shifts switch.
Orange County’s starting pay is about $34,000 a year, Jeffries said, so they face a lot of competition from counties that can pay more for their highly trained staff.
Trainees spend the first six weeks learning to take calls; operate the computer-assisted dispatch – CAD – system; and respond to different scenarios, Medlin said. Then there’s six more weeks of call-taking before they move into four weeks of radio dispatching classes.
New hires dispatch calls and monitor emergency traffic, before answering the phone. The goal is to have 10 people per shift, Medlin said, so some can stick to answering phones and others to dispatching ambulance and fire calls.
Five trainees are leaving the academy now and another six are in training, leaving eight spots to fill, Medlin said. Most people learn quickly whether it’s the right job for them, he and Summey said.
“After five years, you know whether you can do it or not,” Summey said. “Once they stay more than five years, they can deal with the stress.”
There are three things to keep in mind when calling 911, interim Communications Operations Manager Kevin Medlin said:
▪ Your location, including a nearby intersection or landmark.
Cell phones are used in roughly 60 percent of calls. While they usually can find your location, the results can be slow or inaccurate, especially in areas with limited cell phone service.
▪ Call if you can, text if you can’t. But be sure to share your location in the text, because cell phone locators don’t work with text technology.
▪ Stay on the line. The 911 telecommunicator may need more information, even if you call by mistake. They always send law enforcement to make sure you’re OK.
Orange County 911 needs more telecommunicators, officials said. Applicants must be 21 or older and a U.S. or naturalized citizen with a clean criminal record. Other requirements and an application link are posted at bit.ly/23K1q50.