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Steel nerves, superlative brains, sharp hearing...welcome to 911

  • Friday, March 14, 2014

A.M. Sheehan/Journal Scene Portia Conover sits in front of her six dispatch screens, with CCTV screens above them, focused on juggling the multiple balls of approximately 12 deputies in the field, 911 calls, license checks and NCIC checks.

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Imagine trying to juggle multiple people talking to you, six computer screens, three mice and two keyboards.

A recipe for disaster.

Unless, of course, you are a dispatcher, and then it is simply what you do.

Sitting in front of six computer screens, Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office Dispatcher Portia Conover simultaneously listens to multiple units in the field, her fingers flying as she updates her CAD (Computer Aided Dispatch) screen with information coming in from a 911 call, runs a vehicle registration for another deputy and dispatches a third deputy to an address for a verbal argument in progress.

It’s a slow day, she says.

It’s 4:30 p.m. on a Friday.

Conover’s shift ends at 6 p.m. The shift for the deputies she’s responsible for ends at 5 p.m. This is a busy time, she explains, because briefly there are twice as many officers out as the shift changes.

Conover is sitting at the “dispatch” desk for DCSO. To her right sits Ricky Wolfe. Today his responsibilities are “patrol.” This includes Harleyville, St. George and Ridgeville police departments.

To his right sits Miranda Stephenson whose desk handles fire, and at the fourth corner is Shauna Lloyd, handling EMS.

These four positions handle dispatching for the entire county with the only exception being the town of Summerville, which has its own dispatch center for Summerville fire and police.

However, the county dispatch center has the capacity to seat seven dispatchers and has done so during emergency situations such as hurricanes and ice storms.

All four dispatchers answer incoming calls – 911 as well as non-emergency calls to the main sheriff’s office line (after 5 p.m.) – and all can dispatch every agency if another dispatcher is tied up. The phone has different ringtones for the 911 and non-emergency lines.

The six screens in front of each dispatcher are for: NCIC (National Crime Information Center) and SCDMV; below that the CAD screen for active calls; a mapping screen which is connected to the 911 call and shows the dispatcher where the call is originating from; an on-duty screen that keeps track of what zone the deputies are covering and what calls they are on; a dispatch screen that can send out tones or radio transmissions; and, lastly, a phone screen that shows calls coming in and which dispatcher is on what call. The screen also enables any dispatcher to listen to any ongoing call.

The county dispatch center has the ability to map (locate) a cell phone within 50 yards. This is a huge boon to responding agencies, especially if the caller is unable to say where they are.

Conover is currently working 12 active calls and listening “with one ear,” she says, to the other dispatchers in case she has to dispatch a law enforcement unit to one of their active calls.

“And,” she says, “we help each other out.”

In the other room, the office, is Lori Miller, training supervisor, Cora Tanton, NCIC supervisor, and Cpt. Thomas P. Limehouse, communications supervisor. Their day is finished at 5 p.m., and they come in to say goodbye to the dispatchers.

Training

According to Conover, dispatchers train at least three months and some, she says, up to six months. “It depends on the person.” Furthermore, she adds, “we learn new stuff every day.”

On this crew, Conover has been dispatching for DCSO for two years, Lloyd, three years, Wolfe one year and Stephenson almost five years.

Miller has been a dispatcher and then supervisor for 20 years and Tanton has been a dispatcher for 15.

The county has 21 dispatchers – 20 full-time and one part-time.

It can be a highly stressful job. For example, in three minutes Conover ran six operators’ licenses, one vehicle registration and then added the information for each to the call.

Skill, speed

It’s getting toward the end of the shift and a 911 call comes in. Wolfe answers it. A mother, barely hanging on to her self-control, tells him that her daughter just came home and told her a man with a gun tried to kidnap her. Wolfe asks to speak with the daughter and the mother puts the phone on speaker.

For the next 60 seconds Wolfe calmly takes the child through a recitation of what was said, what the man looked like and what kind of car he was in. The child, in tears, answers all his questions. He types her answers in the CAD system and it pops up on Conover’s screen. She immediately dispatches law enforcement to the child’s address with a description of the perpetrator and his vehicle. Multiple deputies are on scene within three minutes. The child is still speaking with Wolfe.

Wolfe tells the child “you did exactly what you were supposed to do…you did a really good job.”

She did. Based on the child’s clear description of both the man (in a red sweatshirt), the vehicle and the four suspects in the vehicle with the man, deputies identified a vehicle in the neighborhood matching the description, pulled it over, identified a subject in the vehicle matching the child’s description and ultimately arrested him.

“The little girl’s description was excellent,” says Wolfe.

It is time for shift change and four new faces walk in. The day dispatchers bring the night shift up to date on what is pending and they gather their things to leave.

“We never have a repeated day here,” says Stephenson, shaking her head. It is always different.

Between 4:30 and 5 p.m. – what Conover says is always a busy time – 24 calls came in.

“We leave it here…we can’t take it home with us,” notes Conover.

They wave goodbye and are off.

The phones are ringing.

Fayth Grooms takes over dispatch seat. Deedee Ellis sits at the police desk, Amy Taylor takes the reins at fire and Andrew Inabinet settles in on the EMS desk. Grooms is the shift supervisor and has been dispatching for 16 years, six of them as a supervisor. Ellis has been doing it for four years with DCSO, and seven years with North Charleston. Taylor has five years under his belt, and Inabinet began in August 2013. The other three have his back when he encounters something new. They all trade jabs in an easy and supportive camaraderie.

Grooms explains how they can be busy on their own call and know when another dispatcher needs their attention. “We call it dispatcher’s ear,” she laughs. Ellis chimes in, saying it is sort of like “mother’s ear” where mothers always know where each child is and what they are doing.

“We also know our deputies and we know their voices and tones,” continues Ellis. “We can tell when something isn’t right.”

This ability could mean the difference between a tragedy and assistance. If a dispatchers gets the sense that all is not as it should be say, for example, on a traffic stop, the dispatcher can immediately send backup.

“It takes longer to build rapport with EMS and fire,” Grooms explained, “because we never see them like we see law enforcment. But we have their backs and they have ours.”

Above Grooms’ head are multiple CCTV screens showing views from the many cameras around and in the building including the booking room at the jail.

A deputy comes in with a male suspect in a red sweatshirt, the man who tried to get the little girl. It is a rewarding sight.

Crucial information

The first thing a caller to 911 hears is, “911 what is the location of your emergency?” It is paramount for dispatchers to first get a location. This is so they can start dispatching a response – fire, rescue or police – while they are still gathering details. It is the way help will get there the fastest.

The questions dispatchers ask are crucial in order for them to render the quickest and most appropriate aid. Dipatchers deliver babies, do CPR, save victims from assaults, all through the phone line based on their questions and instructions. They save lives.

A number of 911 calls that come in are either what they call “pocket” calls or children playing with a cell phone. As long as there is a battery in the phone it can call 911.

What happens if dispatch goes down? Power outages don’t affect the center as each station is on battery backup and the DCSO has permanent generators that immediately kick in. If the system is down for an upgrade or there are phone issues, Summerville dispatch will take the DCSO calls and vice versa.

And when Charleston County’s dispatch phone lines went down, it sent two dispatchers and a supervisor to Dorchester. The only problem? The systems were different.

“So we went to good old fashioned paper and pencil,” laughs Grooms, “The call take wrote the information on paper and someone would run it to another desk for dispatching. But first we had to figure out who belonged where (which county). In the end it worked just fine.

“We have had some very intense moments with things going on,” says Grooms. “My and Amy’s [Taylor] biggest situation, I think, was a Greyhound bus that ran into the back of a logging truck. We had amazing callers [people on the bus calling 911]. The driver was badly hurt and everyone was entrapped for several hours but the callers were calm, followed directions. It was awesome teamwork…it could have gone so badly and it went so well.”

Ellis is speaking to a 911 caller. “Can you get away from him? Can you go to another room?”

Grooms listens and dispatches a unit to the address of a verbal domestic. Ellis stays on the line with the woman who tells her that the man had thrown eggs at the cupboard and was yelling at her.

Dispatchers have to keep track of five zones in the county. Deputies patrol according to zones and dispatchers need to know what zone an address falls in. They also need to know what district a fire is in.

Since the massive annexing Summerville did a few years ago, police and fire districts are cut up in a somewhat odd manner. A single house might be in Summerville’s police/fire district even though it is surrounded by house after house in the county’s coverage area. It is a massive headache and time consumer for all involved. The dispatchers, however, seem to be on top of it.

It has been a slow night. A call here or there but nothing much. It’s 10 p.m.

They groan about being bored and challenge each other to “say the ‘Q’ word.”

“We’re a superstitious lot,” explains Grooms, “so we never say the word ‘quiet.’”

However, boredom falls prey to superstition and they ask Taylor to say it. Apparently she has “witchy” powers and every time she says “it’s too quiet” all hell breaks loose.

She says it. It’s 10:03 p.m.

The radio goes off at 10:06.

An 18-wheeler has overturned on Highway 78 just after the split and the driver is entrapped.

A deputy on patrol has just come across the accident.

The driver’s condition is unknown, there are fluids leaking, it is unknown what the truck is carrying. Taylor dispatches fire and Inabinet dispatches EMS. Grooms contacts highway patrol.

The deputy comes back on and requests a heavy-duty tow truck to lift the truck off the driver’s legs.

Grooms calls highway patrol back and firmly communicates that the wrecker is needed even before the SCHP arrives on scene.

Grooms asks the deputy if he can see any placards on the truck that would indiate hazardous materials.

The deputy calls back and says he can’t see any and requests assistance in blocking off the highway between the two Waterwheel Road intersections.

Company 2 (Old Fort) and Company 8 (Ridgeville) fire departments respond. DCEMS Medic 3 also responds from Ridgeville as well as an EMS supervisor from Summerville.

A helicopter is requested.

Ellis calls and is told LifeNet is not flying and Meducare is not flying…no one is flying. The weather. Except the weather in this part of the county is clear. But the cloud ceiling where the copters are coming from is too low.

Ellis explains that it will be about a half hour before extrication will be completed so please call her back if conditions change. She then connects the helicopter dispatcher with EMS directly.

The 911 line rings. A teary voice says they need someone to come, “he is yelling and screaming at me.”

While all this is going on, deputies all over the county are radioing in, asking for tag and license checks, updating their status. EMS is being requested for abdominal pain, general illness, headaches. Minor accidents are happening all over, cars in ditches, and fire department first responders are being dispatched to various calls where appropriate.

It is no longer quiet.

Grooms asks Ellis to “send a page to “let ‘them’ know about the LZ.”

The LZ (landing zone) is being set up in the parking lot and/or nearby field at the DCSO on Deming Way. The page is to all fire, EMS and DCSO command staff, keeping them up to date. This is always done for major incidents.

A heavy wrecker has arrived at the scene.

It is 10:56 p.m.

The driver is extricated. It is 11:24 p.m.

The helicopter is cancelled at 11:25 p.m.

The driver is transported by ambulance – Category 3 – at 11:45 p.m. (Category 3 is the lowest category of injury/illness.)

The team is happy the driver was not seriously injured.

It’s after midnight now.

The phone keeps ringing.

911, what is the location of your emergency?

“I am okay but I fell and my son has a broken arm and I need help getting up.”

911, what is the location of your emergency?

“I am on Rte. 61 following a drunk driver…he is all over the road….”

911….

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