Bob Alexander remembers reporting to the second floor of the old Westminster fire station at 9 p.m. on April 16, 1966, with Clarence Souders and waiting with anticipation for a call to come through to their number, 848-4343. This was before area codes and before 911 was established as the nationwide standard for emergency response.
For hours, no calls came, so they spent the time working on their equipment, waiting to respond to the first emergency that they would handle as Carroll County Central Alarm, the predecessor to today's Carroll County Emergency Communications Center.
Then, at 6:30 a.m. the phone rang. It was a chimney fire. Using the single-site, low band radio system, they quickly dispatched Westminster and Pleasant Valley Fire Departments, marking a major milestone for standardized emergency communications in the county.
Monday afternoon, guests gathered in the John Street Quarters to celebrate the history of Carroll County Central Alarm formed by the Carroll County Fire Chief's Association, 52 years to the day of that first day on air. Three of the original members of the Central Alarm team — Alexander, Oscar Baker and Bob Cumberland — and many more who have worked for emergency communications in the county since then attended.
Baker, who will soon turn 96, said it was good to celebrate the anniversary and to "see people I haven't seen for a long time."
Charles D. “Charlie” Green Jr. has been working in the county for seven years and currently serves as an Emergency Communications Specialist – Supervisor. The Times caught up with Green to talk about a typical day, the first call he handled and what you should know if you need to call 911.
Director of Carroll County Public Safety Scott Campbell said the people are the most important part of the history that was shared at Monday's celebration.
"You can have all the technology and the fancy facility, but if you don't have dedicated, professional, committed, well-trained people, the technology is all for naught," Campbell said. "The people are the foundation here. Everything else just enhances their ability to do the job they're committed to do."
Carroll County Commissioner Stephen Wantz gave the keynote address of the celebration, reflecting on his times as a dispatcher when the operation was headquartered in the tight quarters of the basement of the Carroll County Detention Center. He spoke about the "unforgettable cast of characters" that he worked with during his years there.
"Today's event pays tribute to something that is, quite honestly, typically taken for granted," he said.
Seeking to answer the question "how far have we come?" he spoke about the early days of Carroll fire dispatching, when emergency calls went to a "party line" of homes within running distance of the fire house. When a call came through, the recipient would write down the address where the fire was taking place and sprint to the fire house to pull to the siren.
Later, a video detailed the history of Carroll Central Alarm, including the hurdles its founders overcame, from establishing the territory for each county fire station to finding funding when money was tight. The video is available to view on the CarrollCountyGov Youtube channel.
Alexander, Baker and Cumberland were interviewed in the video, and provided background information as the creators pieced together the history of the operation, from the many changes in location and communications technology that have altered response over the years.
For the project, Alexander took a leap of faith when he offered up a scrapbook in which he collected records, photos and articles dating back to 1953. Though they kept it for several months, he was relieved to have it returned intact from the county offices.
"The names have changed. The venues and the procedures have changed," Wantz said. "But just like the past 52 years, we remain proud of all who have and currently serve our citizens as the first line of defense as they bravely serve their communities every hour of every day."
To close the ceremony, Campbell spoke about the future of 911 operations in the next few years. This includes the "text to 911" system, which Gov. Larry Hogan recently announced will be implemented across the state. After that will come Next Generation 911 (NG911), expected in the next 2-3 years, a jump to mobile wireless communications, that will allow photos, video and even streaming to be a part of emergency communications.