Amid citizen complaints, Call Center opens up about process
Everyone knows to dial 911 for any emergency situation, but not many people know what happens on the other end of the phone.
These callers are in one of the most stressful moments of their lives. But patience, time and thought will need to go into the situation to resolve the issue.
Most people think they are talking to a police officer or a first responder on the other line, ac- cording to Chris Thompson, the assistant chief of communications for the Department of Emergency Services. In reality, they are speaking to trained dispatchers for emergency situations, he said.
“The public knows police, they know fire and they know EMS. They don’t know anything about 911. They don’t know the people who answer the phone,” Thompson said. “They have no idea what our protocols are about. It’s that way across the nation.”
Many people have complained about the time on the line and questions dispatchers in the call center must ask, Thompson said, but all of those questions are necessary to send the proper help to an emergency.
Situations such as the one in Prince George’s County where John Ulmschneider, a 37-year-old firefighter, was shot and killed on the scene of a 911 call to check on a resident.
Recently, Thompson said, a call- er took issue with questions a call taker asked and requested a look at the call center’s process. But according to protocol, the call taker did nothing wrong in the situation, Thompson said.
“We do ask a lot of questions,” Thompson said. “These are questions that we are bound to ask. We have no choice but to ask these questions.”
The call center operates from a manual with a question-and-answer flow chart. Every time, Thompson said, the call taker will initially ask callers to state their emergency. Then, the call taker must verify the location with the caller and find a good address along with a phone number.
After that, he said, they will follow the outlined question flow chart depending on the emergency and send whatever service is required from the results.
All 911 calls are handled in the emergency services building. There are two different agencies in the call center: one for fire and emergency services and another for the sheriff’s office communications.
Dispatchers are certified in emergency police dispatch, fire dispatch and medical dispatch. From those certifications, Thompson said, they know what questions to ask and when.
“Dispatchers’ first role is to protect the officer. That’s their first role, it’s scene safety,” Thompson said. “Same thing with the fire department and paramedics and EMTs. The way we do that is asking our questions.”
Bill Smith, a volunteer firefighter with and public information coordinator for the Charles County Volunteer and Emergency Services Department, said the dispatchers are essential to what they do and how they operate.
With approximately 2,500 calls over the last year or so, Smith said, the fire department has not had a major incident where a volunteer has been put in danger or information has been faulty. That is a reflection on how good the dispatchers are, he said.
“Sometimes citizens get frustrated because they ask so many questions, but that helps us on the street,” Smith said. “We did not have many calls that we had issues with.”
Smith said most of the dispatchers handling fire and emergency services have some volunteer fire experience and know exactly what questions to ask. They send exact notes into the call system with specific information volunteers may need and that makes handling the emergency easier.
Lt. Stanley Gregan, the commander of the communications department of the Charles County Sheriff’s Office, said dispatchers are not appreciated enough for the work they do. They give accurate information, he said, and make sure officers and first responders are safe going into emergencies.
“The reason why an officer or a paramedic can get a save is because the dispatcher kept that person alive until we got there,” Gregan said. “The police and medical personnel carry defribrillators, but the dispatcher has someone there doing CPR and keeping the blood flowing until someone with more advanced medical skill gets there.”
The more information dispatchers can get from people, the easier it is for police to do their jobs, Gregan said. In essence, he said, dispatchers are interviewing people the police will then interview when they arrive at the scene.
Thompson said while dispatchers do have a lot of questions to ask and he understands how people can be frustrated in stressful situations, once a caller dials 911, they are essentially helping solve an emergency.
For every call, some emergency personnel will be sent to the scene — no matter what the issue is. Even if the emergency is minimal, help will be sent. But the information callers send will always be essential, Thompson said.
“We have to trust them based off the information they’re giving us,” Thompson said. “They’re feeding us the information. We trust them.”
A dispatcher in the Emergency Services Call Center is taking a call for a mulch fire while monitoring the location and phone number of the caller on multiple screens on Tuesday afternoon.