Sunday, May 27, 2012
By JAMIE MUNKS
Working in Saratoga County’s 911 dispatch center means always being ready when the phone rings — whether it’s walking someone through performing CPR or fielding a call from someone who calls three times a day.
“It’s something you can’t teach somebody,” said Lt. Richard Castle of the Saratoga County 911 Center. “To be able to deliver a baby over the phone and then hang up the phone and the next call is a homicide, and deal with them with the same amount of professionalism. The biggest thing is handling multitasking.”
It takes years of experience to be able to walk someone through “anything,” no matter how traumatic, Sgt. Leah Kane said.
“Everyone is different — sometimes it’s very difficult to break the hysteria threshold,” she said. “It’s years of experience.”
The job and workload for dispatchers have changed dramatically over the years, especially at the busy Saratoga County 911 Dispatch Center. Today it’s not uncommon to have 17 patrol cars on the roads and busy during an afternoon shift, while 25 years ago dispatchers could go an entire night without receiving a single call and were filing reports in-house that patrol officers now do from the road. Cell phones have increased call volumes, and many other agencies that used to use their own dispatchers have consolidated their operations over the years, leaving the dispatching duties to the county’s center.
“There’s never going to be a reversal of that trend,” Castle said.
The dispatch center is responsible for all cellular 911 calls in the county and all landline 911 calls, with the exception of the town of Waterford and city of Saratoga Springs, which still receive their own 911 calls.
Dispatchers at the county 911 center fielded 72,000 911 calls and 295,000 total phone calls in 2011. The 911 calls have increased by more than 33 percent since 2007, when the dispatch center moved into its current location.
The center dispatches seven law enforcement agencies, 33 fire departments and 14 ambulance agencies. Going digital has streamlined the dispatch process, communications officers say.
The dispatch system faced its biggest challenge with Tropical Storm Irene — it had been live for about three months at that time, reaching 23 percent capacity with all the calls coming in, Castle said.
There are two distinct rings for telephones in the center — one for emergency calls and the other for non-emergency calls. When a call comes through, the system registers which police, fire and ambulance districts the caller is in.
There are 32 employees on the payroll, and only a “handful” of those have fewer than three or four years of experience. Several of the people manning the phones in the 911 center have decades of experience, Castle said.
“The experience they bring to the table and the local knowledge is huge,” he said.
The center was allotted several more positions a few years ago and is now fully staffed. But it took a while to get to that staffing level because of the daunting call volume and the pressure on Saratoga County dispatchers; even people who came to the county’s center with experience from other dispatch centers sometimes left.
The minimum staffing is four desk officers and one desk sergeant from 8 a.m. to midnight, and three desk officers and one desk sergeant from midnight to 8 a.m.
“It’s a tough job, and this is a busy center,” Castle said. “We’re currently at full staff, but we went through a few people before we filled those positions.”
Computerized mapping technology shows dispatchers a picture of the site where a call is coming from. Red pins on the computer screen represent pending calls, and green pins represent dispatched calls.
In some of the more rural areas of the county, drive time must be factored into the emergency response, but if crews aren’t there within 10 minutes, dispatchers will call another nearby agency, Castle said.
Dispatchers rely on a complex digital technology infrastructure that includes intelligent work stations with GPS mapping systems, voiceless dispatch to sheriff’s department patrols and digital voice and data recording.
Dispatch center supervisors recalled watching engineers try to trip up the system before it was first put in, and it took more than 30 minutes of methodically pulling wires before even part of the system began to shut down. If the system is tampered with, or in the event of a power outage, there are a variety of back-up systems, automatic re-routing and additional power sources to keep it running in even the most dire circumstances.
It’s hooked into the county’s geographic information system, so information about who owns a residence is immediately available, as well as information about how many times officers have responded to that location.
One of the biggest misconceptions and frustrations dispatchers have is the resistance they meet when they’re asking questions of people who call 911.
“Usually, at least two of us are on the call,” Sgt. John Abbott said, adding that dispatchers can do more to help when they are provided more information. “When someone calls 911, we have to ask a lot of questions and people get frustrated sometimes when they think it’s delaying their ambulance, and that’s not the case. Someone is listening and getting the ambulance out. There’s no doubt you become a team.”
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