Charles Barnhart began working as an emergency dispatcher in 1973, 10 years before 911 came to Carroll County, and during his career he saw cell phones go from being rare to a time when emergency calls from mobile devices surpassed those made from landlines.
Barnhart retired from the county's 911 dispatch center on June 17.
The Times caught up with him to discuss why he became a dispatcher, interesting calls and what more 911 callers should know.
Q: When did you begin your career with the dispatch center? Why did you apply in the first place?
A: I began as a part-time dispatcher in November 1973. We were on the second floor of the Westminster Fire Department. The chairman of the fire board, Moe Parrish, sat me down and said, "You would make a good dispatcher." I was attending Frederick Community College at the time; I wanted to be a teacher. I joined the fire department at Taneytown and being a volunteer I was interested in being a firefighter and making a career of being a dispatcher.
Q: What are some of the weirdest calls you've received?
A: There are too many to count, but my second night after being turned loose to work alone — actually the date was March 8, 1974 — I received a call for a barn fire around 12:55 a.m. Ten minutes later I received a second call, thinking it was the first barn fire, but it was a second barn fire almost in the same area. Then, several hours later that same night, I received a call for a third barn fire. The Fire Marshal's Office caught the individual who set all three barns on fire after the third barn fire came in, thus I was given the name of "Charlie Barnfire."
Q: Do dispatchers find out the outcome of calls they receive if they want to follow up?
A: I dispatched a lot of calls in my history. Some dispatchers find out the outcome, some don't.
Q: What was technology like when you started and how did you see it change?
A: When I began, our radio console was several monitors, a small base station, a tape recorder and a telephone. 911 did not come into play until around 1983. We also had a peg board to keep the stats of equipment, running assignments — orders were on 4-by-4 cards — and we kept a road file of all roads, businesses, etc.
Q: Have cell phones changed how dispatchers do their jobs?
A: Of course they have, but with all the technology out there now it is easier to locate someone who has an emergency than it used to be just having a phone number. There are more cell phone emergencies than regular home/business phone. The mapping program can track a caller pretty quick, and if not we can do emergency call traces ... to find where they are. All people get equal service.
Q: What's the most difficult part of the job? Why?
A: People screaming at you on the phone. Yes, we realize they have an emergency and we are there to help, but in order for us to help we need the caller to be as calm as possible. That does not always happen. And of course, when someone loses a loved one or loses everything they have from a fire. It always made me stop and think, "What else could I have done?"
Q: What do you wish more people would know about calling 911?
A: Citizens need to know we are there to help them. They need to give us accurate information: the address of the emergency, the phone number they are calling from in case they have to be called back to obtain more information once help is on the way, the situation — what's the problem? Fire, medical or police? — and a set of scripted questions are asked to give the responders information as to what is going to be happening when they arrive on scene in order to prepare themselves for the emergency.