The way John A. Hampton sees it, communications centers are the lifelines of the community, and in Howard County he's ready to monitor every heartbeat.
As new director of the county's $2.1 million Bureau of Central Communications, he's approaching the task with three decades of experience in Washington, D.C. -- as a firefighter, as head of operations and training for the city's emergency communications center and as acting director of the center, one of the busiest in the nation.
Because the district was downsizing its fire department, "I felt it was time to move on to come to a position closer to home," Mr. Hampton said in an interview in his new office in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.
Mr. Hampton, 53, lives near Glenelg with his wife of 30 years, Fran,and has three grown children.
Mr. Hampton was selected from 187 candidates nationally because of his background in emergency communications and strong reputation for training his workers, said County Executive Charles I. Ecker.
Mr. Hampton said he will concentrate on the essentials in running a communications center: proper training of staff and a sufficient number of people to do the job.
"The communications center is where any emergency that occurs in the community is handled primarily," he said. "The skills of the call-takers and the dispatchers are going to set the tone of the entire incident, whether it's a bank robbery or a traffic accident."
His arrival here in March followed a tumultuous start for Howard County's 20-month-old center.
Its first director, Paul N. Hajek, was fired without explanation in October, and responsibility for the center was transferred from the Department of General Services to the county administration. Then, early this year, citizens who dialed 911 complained of getting a recorded message, the result of overloaded emergency lines.
Mr. Hampton declined to discuss the center's past troubles, preferring to look forward.
He plans to evaluate the county's communications center before making changes. Compared to Washington's communications center, which averaged 305,000 fire and ambulance calls a year, the county's center averages about 128,000 police, fire and ambulance calls annually. It has a staff of about 50.
In Washington, he helped create a "ride-along" program so trainees could accompany fire units to get "a feeling for what was happening on the other side," he said. He also increased the staff from 72 to 80.
One of his biggest accomplishments, he said, was helping install a program to teach employees to help callers until emergency crews arrive.
He said he'd like to duplicate that here, but isn't sure of the cost.
"In D.C., we successfully gave CPR instructions over the telephone," he said. "I think it could be very beneficial for the residents of the county and for members of the dispatch center."
Mr. Ecker said he and other officials would seriously consider Mr. Hampton's plans, but there are "fiscal limitations."
Former co-workers describe Mr. Hampton as knowledgeable and open-minded and innovative.
"He was a good supervisor, and he handled any problems that came his way," said retired Deputy Fire Chief Philip A. Matthews, his former supervisor. Howard County will "be a piece of cake for him."
"He understood and understands the communications business," said Fire Battalion Chief Ted Holmes. Working in the district's high-volume and pressured center "gives you more opportunity to test your mettle," which Mr. Hampton did.