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Dialing for help


Dispatch officers recall stories of 911



roswell_911_w
The people in Roswell's 911 center get all kinds of calls from the public, from the weird to the deadly and everything in between. JONATHAN COPSEY/Staff. (click for larger version)
July 09, 2014
ROSWELL, Ga. – For most people, dialing 911 is ingrained in us from youth. When you are in danger or in need of help, call 911 and the cavalry will be arriving shortly.

For the men and women who receive those calls, it's a career, and a rewarding one at that. For Roswell, that pride stretches to the very creation of the dispatch center.

Roswell operates its own 911 emergency dispatch, separate from any other city. The city has gone it alone since 1986 when 911 began in Roswell.

"We were one of the first municipalities to have 911. We had it even before Atlanta," said Susan Gifford, Roswell communications manager. "We've been technologically advanced for such a city of our size.

"We are proud of our 911 center."

The center receives about 4,500 calls a month.

Being a 911 communications officer is more than simply answering a phone. They need to know how to respond in all manner of emergencies while keeping a cool head. They are the first of the first responders, being the ones to first take in and control a situation, relaying that information to arriving police, firefighters of medical personnel.

Gifford said gut instincts play a large role in their job. She recalled one call where a man reported his wife had shut her hand in a door, severely breaking it.

"His tone of voice was off," she said.

So she sent police to the home as well as EMTs. What they found was the man was a wanted felon who had attacked his wife.

"You always want to listen to your instinct," she said. "Instinct cannot be replaced with an automated system."

As with any profession dealing with a general public, there are horror stories as well as comical travails.

"We deal with a lot of people in the city," said Renae McNease, a communications officer. "People reporting potholes and city things call here."

What time does Trick-or-Treat start? Why are traffic lights out? My Thanksgiving turkey is overcooked, what can I do?

"Someone called 911 to rescue a trapped squirrel on Ga. 400," Roswell Police Officer Zachary Frommer said. "They wanted an officer out there."

Calls come in about animals outside, he said. Snakes and bears in people's yards.

"People say, 'but it's my back yard,' but we tell them animals belong outside," he said. "It's when they come into the house that it becomes a problem."

"I had a call from a local fast food restaurant at 11 p.m.," said Michelle Schneider, another communications officer. "A guy had walked through the drive-thru. He was wearing a red hat. That was all he was wearing."

McNease said patients at mental facilities call repeatedly, as do many other "regulars" in the community and drunks late at night.

"They just want to hear another human being's voice," she said.

During 911 Education Month (April), the officers will go to schools and talk to children about how to call 911 and what to do in emergencies.

"You can always tell when kids had 911 education," McNease said. "They call 911 just to check if it really works."

While they may laugh at some calls, the job is a serious one. Everything from injuries to car accidents to murders come though their phones.

"A 6-year-old boy called. He said his momma and 'g-momma' were sick," said Gifford. "He answered every question and helped get them ready for the EMT."

"Sometimes the kids are the easiest," added Schneider. "They don't panic like adults."

The dispatchers have to be able to respond to all sorts of situations, sometimes life-and-death.

"I had a guy who wanted to commit suicide by dousing himself in gasoline," McNease said. "Officers went out and I spoke with him while they responded. I probably saved his life.

"You get that one call where you did make a difference," she added. "If you give lifesaving instructions, it makes the job more rewarding."

Gifford said the department is short-staffed. Right now, there are three or four officers per shift. Ideally, she wants five. Some will be taking calls while others operate the police and fire radios. The department is hiring more officers and will have testing this month for potential recruits. See the sidebar for more information.

BOX

Tips when calling 911:

Know where you are.

Listen to the dispatcher.

Answer all questions.

SIDEBAR

ROSWELL, Ga. – The city of Roswell is seeking a few good workers to fill out the city's 911 dispatch center.

Through recent retirements and now maternity leave, the dispatch ranks have thinned, necessitating some new hires. One testing date will be July 10. If needed, another will be set up.

"We're letting people show up with application in hand," said Officer Zachary Frommer, with the Community Relations Unit. "We want to find the best candidates we can and streamline them in."

Right now, there are 13 communications officers and three support staff. Ideally, there will be 20 officers.

Applicants must pass a background test, similar to a police officer application. Honesty and trust are a large part of this job. Frommer said about half of all applicants pass the background test.

Working nights or weekends at the dispatch can fit in well with a student's schedule. Frommer said the call volume varies, but there is a lot of down-time when homework can be worked on.

"It's a good job for someone in school," said Frommer. "Some people do it as a stepping stone to being a police officer."

He said many of the department's best officers came through communications. They hit the road already knowing emergency codes and the layout of the city, leaving less training required.

"You know how everything works," he said. Workers need to be 18 to work in dispatch and 21 to be a police officer. "This is a good place to start."

Applicants must be 18 years old, be a U.S. citizen and have a high school diploma or equivalent. Testing is two to three hours of typing, map reading and multitasking quizzes. There is a written test and then an interview.

"We can make you the greatest dispatcher," Frommer said. "We are looking for the critical skills and attention to detail."

From 8-10 a.m. July 10, Roswell 911 will hold testing for applicants at 11565 Maxwell Road (across from the recycling center). Applications will be accepted after this date.

For information or the job description, visit www.roswellgov.com/jobs or email rpdcareers@roswellgov.com.

RN 07-10-14

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