Behind the voice: Jefferson County 911 operators answered 40,358 calls for help last year

Communication is never more important than when your house is on fire, your family member isn’t breathing or when someone is threatening violence. 
You dial 911 and you get a voice, a voice that stays calm, that asks you questions and gives instructions. A voice that can talk you through CPR or how to help someone who is choking. 
While you are talking with that voice, another voice is dispatching emergency personnel to the address you’ve given. 
“When the call comes into the Communications Center, it is answered by an available Communications Officer who will ascertain if the caller has an emergency or not. Once the nature of the problem is identified, the officer will dispatch the appropriate agency or agencies. Often times the call will require multiple agencies to be dispatched at once; and, both communication officers will work together as a team to ensure the appropriate help is being sent. Each office position has the CAD or Computer Aided Dispatch Screen in front of them; and, each officer can see what the others are inputting so that they are not duplicating efforts,” said Jim Anderson, Jefferson County Emergency Management/Homeland Security director.
Anderson said there are always at least two dispatchers on duty. Each shift is 12 hours.
Jefferson County currently employs nine communications officers and one training officer/supervisor.
“All positions are full time positions,” Anderson said. “I have one part time position that is open.” 
In 2017, the Jefferson County 911 Center operators handled 40,358 calls. And that does not count the thousands of administrative calls they answer.
Last year there were 2,993 calls for EMS and 1,807 fire calls. The center received 35,336 calls for law enforcement.
Communications officers must complete a 40-hour Basic Communications Officer Course, which is given at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center in Forsyth. Then each dispatcher must be able to become licensed by the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council. This is the same agency that licenses law enforcement officers and correctional officers. 
Shifts are 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and then 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. and with the rotation, officers work every other weekend.
“As you can imagine, it can be quite hectic depending on the nature of the call as each responding agency must be answered on the radio, entered into the CAD system and then answer any other calls that may be coming in at the same time,” Anderson said.
Even working as a team, it is necessary for each communications officer to be able to listen, type and talk all at the same time. 
“It goes from sheer boredom to full adrenaline rush with the ring of the phone. Factor in that every one of our communications officers is human and has the potential to be affected emotionally by the call,” Anderson said. “Consider that they listen to people call in at some of their worst moments in life. Like, they find their spouse of 55 years lying on the bed cold to the touch and not breathing, they call 911; and, it is our job to keep them calm until we get someone to them. 
“Or, they find their newborn lying in the crib, cold to the touch and not breathing, they call 911 hysterically asking us to do something. Or, the person calls asking for help because they have chest pain and it hurts. You listen to them take their last breath and have only silence until a medic or someone picks up the phone when they get there. They have the potential to face multiple of these types of calls in a single shift; and, they must remain calm, not let their emotions interfere with their duties at the moment and move right into another call.”
Of course, his communications officers are also there when emergencies go as well as can be expected.
“They sometimes hear the newborn baby take their first breath and cry as it comes into the world,” Anderson said. “Or, the sheer joy of that family member they have been coaching on CPR or how to treat someone choking and they are ecstatic that their loved one has started breathing again while waiting on help to arrive.”
The director said it’s hard to describe the stress the dispatchers face except to say it is a constant part of their life.
“I guess the only other thing I have to say is that each and every communications officer who serves Jefferson County is a professional,” he said. “They are professionals who have trained and met the standard set upon them by the industry and the State of Georgia. They do a lot more than ‘answer the phone’ and ‘send the fire department or the police.’ It’s not a job that everyone can do. They work holidays when their families are enjoying them, and they miss events with the kids at school or after hour functions because of their shifts.”
When other workers take a snow day, the dispatchers are still expected to make it to work.
“They are considered essential; and, they definitely are,” he said.
Anderson said when we think of a first responder, we immediately see in our minds a bright red fire truck, an ambulance or a police car with flashing lights and help for those in need. 
“That image is correct but in the shadows, behind the scenes is the true ‘first responder,’ the communications officer who was the first person to know there was a problem and without their skills and ability to function under duress, the other first responders would never have been dispatched,” he said.
“I am proud of each of our communications officers and the job they do for our community.”