From switchboards to laptops

The Baltimore Sun

When Howard County's 911 call center opened 30 years ago, three call-takers used an arcane switchboard to field calls from an operator.

Now, after a recent round of renovations and decades of technology upgrades, call-takers work with multiple computer screens, track locations with GPS technology and use pictometry to render real-time, digital 3-D images of any building in the county.

For all the technological advances, the staff still fields the traditional calls for help, such as helping frightened residents deliver babies or survive heart attacks.

This month marks 30 years that Howard County has used 911 for emergency calls. The call center, which is part of the county police department and occupies a nondescript basement room in a government building in Ellicott City, also marked its 30th year this month.

To celebrate, the center underwent a string of renovations that took two months to complete, said Lt. Glenn Case, communications division commander. The backup 911 center has also been renovated and could function for about two months if the primary center were disabled.

"If something happens, now we have somewhere to go," said Edgar Holman, a senior dispatcher who has worked at the center since the first day the county began taking 911 calls. "It's just a matter of throwing a switch."

Howard's center is one of few in Maryland where 911 call-takers and police and fire dispatchers all work out of the same room, said Richard Jordan, computer administrator. Call-takers answer the 911 calls, then pass along the information to the dispatchers, who send out officers or firefighters. The center has 72 employees, including the dispatchers, said police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn.

In August, the center was renovated, Case said. Workers tore down the clear walls that separated parts of the room to create a more open environment and improve air flow. New carpet was installed, and workstations were outfitted with adjustable computer consoles. Fans, heaters and new lighting were added to improve the comfort of call-takers, who work 12-hour shifts.

The renovations created room for three more call-taker stations and two additional supervisor positions, Case said, as well as an office for a police sergeant that is staffed round-the-clock. Currently, there are 10 call-takers and two supervisors.

In the backup center, walls were knocked down to make the room 75 percent bigger, Case said. The number of call-taker stations increased from four to nine, and the number of dispatcher stations from five to seven. A new phone system has the same capabilities as the setup in the primary center, as does new radio equipment.

"It's almost a redundant system ... just more compact," Case said.

The renovations at the backup center took about four months to complete and cost more than $1.3 million, most of which came from the state's 911 emergency systems fund, Case said. The new phone system in the backup center cost about $900,000.

Decades of change

Though the recent upgrades drastically transformed the call center, change has been a constant over the years, said Jordan, who started as a shift supervisor 30 years ago. The advent of cell phones has been one of the most significant changes, he said.

"If something happens, we get inundated with 911 calls," Jordan said. "We used to get one call for an accident."

GPS technology can track cell phones to within 20 feet, compared with a few years ago when they could be traced only to the nearest cell tower.

Call-takers now get instant reports of accidents, sometimes from dozens of witnesses. Jack Blakely, a supervisor, said that 30 years ago, "You could go a night shift and not have one call come in."

"The volume of calls has definitely gone up," said Jordan, who worked as a police dispatcher before taking a job at the 911 center.

Perhaps the biggest change, however, has been the use of laptop computers in police cars, Jordan said.

Officers are able to instantaneously read notes as call-takers enter them into the system, Llewellyn said.

With the information, the officers can avoid going blindly into an incident. In addition, more than one officer can respond to a call - without being dispatched - by reading the notes on the computer.

As the technology has become more complex, so has the training. When Blakely started, training consisted of two weeks in the classroom. Now call-takers undergo six weeks of classroom training and 120 days learning how to take calls before going on to other areas of training, Case said.

Low retention

The extensive training is one reason staff turnover is common at the center. Only one person from a class that started in September 2006 still works at the center. From the class of six that started in August, two people are left.

"We lose people in training," he said. "Once they hit the floor, they get a taste of the shift rotations, the night work. ... We probably lose most of them within the first 120 days.

"The retention is something every center faces. It's like every job - this job's not for everybody."

On the other hand, some, like Blakely and Holman, stick around for the long haul, Jordan said.

"You have some people who will stay until they die in the chairs," Jordan said. "There's usually no middle ground."

Holman said he has stuck with it because he likes making a difference.

"I enjoy the job," he said. "I enjoy helping people. It's a lot of stress. You've got to push that in the back of your head and keep going."

tyeesha.dixon@baltsun.com

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