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On the line: Looking inside a Carroll County 911 dispatch center, ‘where it all starts’

Carroll County 911 dispatchers aren’t visible in public the way that police officers, firefighters, paramedics and emergency medical technicians are, but they also play a crucial part in emergency services — and the COVID-19 pandemic has affected how they operate as well.

Surrounded by colorful computer screens and the sound of near-constant beeps, 911 dispatchers bring help to Carroll residents on their worst days. The Times was recently granted access to their workspace at the Emergency Communications Center to learn more about the work they do around the clock.

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These emergency communications specialists operate out of two undisclosed locations in the county. They number 34 full-time employees and four part-time employees, and are overseen by Jack Brown, emergency communications manager. Working in 12-hour shifts, dispatchers ensure calls get answered, no matter the time or day of the week.

Scott Campbell, director of public safety, said the number of employees on a shift varies. Certain days and times are historically busier than others, Campbell said, so they plan staffing accordingly. The pandemic has forced some adjustments to employees’ day-to-day operations, and upcoming renovations to the 911 centers, planned with COVID-19 in mind, are expected to improve how they operate even beyond the pandemic.

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During the coronavirus pandemic, employees answer a series of wellness questions and have their temperature scanned before entering the workplace. If they’re not well, they don’t work. The dispatchers do not have to wear masks on the phone, Brown said, as they could distort their speech and affect their communication with a caller during an emergency.

On a weekday afternoon in early October, shift supervisor Samantha Flater took a call from someone who spotted a young child walking alone along a road. Pounding at her computer keys, Flater entered the location and details of the emergency. One of her eight monitors displayed the latitude and longitude of the call’s origin. On another screen, a red dot showed the location on a map.

“Can you still see him?" Flater asked the caller, keeping her voice calm and steady. “I don’t want you to get yourself hurt, OK?”

Once Flater ensured the emergency was addressed, she disconnected the call.

“I like being able to help people when they’re at their most vulnerable," she said. “No matter what’s thrown at us, we deal with it. That’s the nature of our job."

Over the past 24 years, Flater has learned how to cope with the calls that don’t go well. Dispatchers have access to counseling services. She wants people to know, “We do take it to heart and it does affect us.”

On the other side of the room, veteran dispatcher Gerald Shaw took a call for an assault. He asked the caller what the suspect looked like, what weapons were involved and if the victim could retreat to a vehicle for safety.

Shaw, who has worked for Carroll County 911 services for three years but has been working in emergency services since 1997, knows every second on the phone is valuable. To give himself more time to listen, Shaw’s phone is programmed to play a recording of himself asking for the location of the caller’s emergency. That extra few seconds while the recording plays, he said, gives him a chance to listen to background noise.

Emergency Communications Specialist Amanda Soper takes a 911 call in the Carroll County Emergency Communications Center Tuesday, October 6, 2020.
Emergency Communications Specialist Amanda Soper takes a 911 call in the Carroll County Emergency Communications Center Tuesday, October 6, 2020. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

A longtime volunteer with the Mount Airy Volunteer Fire Company and the son of a volunteer, Shaw had an interest in emergency services from a young age. His father took him on a tour of the former Carroll County 911 center when he was about 10 years old, and he was captivated by the technology. Shaw also grew familiar with ambulances as they responded to the house when his sister had a diabetic emergency.

Shaw’s ask of those who call 911 is to have patience. “The questions that we ask are being asked for a reason,” he said.

People on both ends of the line have to practice patience. On Tuesday, Amanda Soper took a call from a frantic parent whose child fell and was injured. Soper calmly repeated her questions and instructions as the situation unfolded.

“I try to treat them the way I would want to be treated,” she said.

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Dispatchers offered several tips for anyone who finds themselves needing to call 911:

  • Give your location to the dispatcher first. Although some modern smartphones can be tracked, the system is not fail-safe.
  • You can text 911. The message will appear on the dispatcher’s computer monitor, and they can type responses to you.
  • Be patient with the dispatcher. The questions they ask are to provide you with the proper response.
  • If you are near the border of another county, your call may be answered by a neighboring 911 center.
  • Calling 911 does not connect you to a police or fire department directly, but a dispatcher can send personnel from these departments to you.
  • If you accidentally call 911, stay on the line and tell the dispatcher it was an accident. This saves them time from calling you back.
  • If you hang up on 911, you will get a call back from a 10-digit local number.

No. 1, the dispatcher needs to know where the emergency is located. Then they need to learn the nature of the emergency so the proper personnel can be sent, according to Shaw. Nowadays, they’re also asking if anyone involved has COVID-19 symptoms.

The pandemic has changed the way 911 centers operate. Before COVID-19, the county’s alternate 911 center was treated more as a backup, in case there was a surge in calls or something went wrong at the primary center, according to Campbell. But now, one shift of employees works at the primary center, then the following shift goes to the alternate center. This allows for work stations to be thoroughly cleaned between shifts, Campbell said.

Because COVID-19 has prompted the county to use both centers on a regular basis, county government is using part of its federal coronavirus relief funding to renovate the centers so they have equal capabilities. The alternate center will gain a shower, Campbell said, so employees can rinse off after a 12-hour shift and go home to their loved ones with more peace of mind. A kitchenette will be added to include running water and a space for employees to eat, Campbell said. Coronavirus relief funding will cover renovations and radio upgrades to both centers.

In addition to that funding, Carroll County 911 services will benefit from a $2.5 million system refresh, thanks to a reimbursement from the Maryland 9-1-1 Board. This includes 10 new work stations between the two buildings, plus software and hardware upgrades. Brown hopes most of the work will be complete by the end of this year.

A crucial piece of technology the emergency communications specialists use is the computer-aided dispatch system. Hannah Boyer, who has also been working at the 911 center for three years, walked through a training program to demonstrate the system. Based on the type of emergency, the computer gives the dispatcher questions to ask and instructions to give. As the dispatcher receives answers they click through to the next step.

Boyer, who is an EMT and volunteers with Sykesville Freedom District Fire Department, said it’s important to read the instructions verbatim — otherwise, any editorializing could make the dispatcher responsible. Although she sometimes wants to say more.

Carroll County has a nine-month training process to prepare new recruits. The training includes taking classes and working alongside an experienced employee.

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Paired with Shaw on Tuesday, Oct. 6, was newcomer Lauren, who previously worked in corrections and requested that her last name be withheld. Whenever Lauren received a call, the phone system patched it through to Shaw, too.

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“Police, firefighters are all very important jobs,” Lauren said. "This is the first step. They call 911. This is where it all starts.”

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