PRINCETON — Mercer County 911 has all the computers and high-tech fixtures expected at a modern dispatch center, but gold balloons, party streamers and some nearby treats give the facility some festive atmosphere for National Telecommunicators Week.
Cool air filled the room Monday as dispatchers sat ready at their work stations. Each desk has a half-circle of computer screens making it look like it belongs in a nuclear power plant or the bridge of the starship Enterprise. The work spaces are among the signs that handling 911 calls is more demanding than simply answering the telephone and taking messages.
National Telecommunicators Week recognizes the dispatchers who handle emergency 911 calls, send first responders on their way and gather the information they will need when they arrive on scene. It’s a stressful position that requires clear thinking when callers are upset, confused or uncooperative.
Dispatchers usually receive two to three months of training that includes lessons in a classroom, training in the dispatch center and classes that teach them the national standards dispatchers must meet, said Training Coordinator Brian Hopper. They learn what types of questions they must ask depending on whether the calls they get involve crimes, fires, crashes or medical emergencies. Each first responder agency needs the answers to different questions.
“We have nine volunteer fire departments, two paid fire departments, seven law enforcement agencies and two EMS departments that we answer for,” Hopper said.
And 911 dispatchers must be ready to get these answers 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Another series of questions was added to their duties when the COVID-19 pandemic added another hazard for first responders to face.
“We’ve worked through the pandemic,” Hopper said. “We weren’t able to work from home, so we had to come into the center and work. We asked the questions to make sure our first responders are safe to go to the scene.”
Asking COVID questions adds to a job that’s busy already, but dispatchers have carried it out.
“But it makes sure everybody is safe, so we’re obviously OK with doing that,” Hopper said.
Local businesses provided gift cards and other extras to show the dispatchers their appreciation. The balloons and streamers Hopper and other employees put in the dispatcher center added to the celebration.
Senior Dispatcher Julie Lockhart took time Monday to describe the dispatch center and the work that’s done there every day. Not many calls were coming in, but she knew how quickly the pace could change. Each work station has five computer screens, three mouses and two keyboards. Besides dispatching for police, fire departments and rescue squads, the stations can handle the work of highway safety programs and other assignments.
Serving all of these first responders and programs makes the telephone calls add up. Lockhart checked the year’s current total of phone calls. The count started on Jan. 1.
As of about 2 p.m. Monday, Mercer County 911 had handled 12,975 calls, she said. Every call is about a different situation.
“So each shift is different,” Lockhart stated. “There are three shifts a day, and it’s never the same on each day.”
Taking 911 calls has changed a lot since Mercer County 911 opened in 1994, said Lockhart, who joined the center in 1995. Everything was done on paper then, but now computers streamline the demanding job.
“Just as the world has had to evolve with the times, 911 has as well,” she said. “Now we’re in the computer world.”
Sometimes few calls come in during the day only to have a lot of them arrive simultaneously.
“When it happens, it happens all at one time,” Lockhart said. “Then it’s like bam! Everybody’s out and it’s like car wrecks and domestics.”
Four dispatchers work the day shift and four more work the evening shift with three taking the midnight shift, she said. Every shift is about eight hours long. They hear the people involved in emergencies, but do not see the action as it unfolds. Lockhart compared it to hearing a movie that’s playing in another room.
“They always say it’s like you’re in a horror story or a scary movie. All you hear is the sounds, but you don’t see the movie itself,” she said. “And your imagination takes over. They say we work in the blind. We can only hear or go by what people tell us.”
There are times when the people who call 911 are upset, get cut off or won’t answer questions. Lockhart said that the dispatchers understand that the callers just want somebody to respond, but questions must be asked so the first responders will be ready when they arrive on the scene. For example, if a dispatcher is giving instructions for CPR or first aid, they must know things such as ages and medical conditions. If a crash has been reported, first responders will need to know if anybody is hurt or trapped in the wreckage.
Handling stressful calls is something 911 dispatchers do every day, so having a week when they are recognized for their service is special. Lockhart pointed out the balloons and party decorations in the dispatch center.
“We deal with death and mayhem every day,” she said.
“It makes the place feel happy,” she added, looking up at the decorations.
— Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline. com