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Communications is Life Blood of Public Safety--May 2014 Wakulla Times

COMMUNICATIONS DIVISION IS THE LIFE BLOOD OF PUBLIC SAFETY

By CHARLIE CREEL

Sheriff, Wakulla County

It is 3 a.m. and much of Wakulla County is at home asleep in their beds. But there is a location in Crawfordville where the lights never go out.

On the south side of the Emergency Operations Center is the Wakulla County Sheriff’s Office’s Communications Division. The group of men and women who operate the Communications outpost are split into day and night shifts, but the division never closes.

This group of dedicated men and women are important to not only the law enforcement personnel they communicate with but also emergency medical service staff and firefighters. At the WCSO we dispatch all emergency services out of one communications center.

If you have a family emergency and call 911, these are the dedicated folks who will answer your call even if they are busy and working on other calls.

When the flood waters from Tropical Storm Debbie were raging last June our communications staff remained at their posts to make sure everyone was safe and served. In this emergency event the response also included a coordinated effort with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).

It takes a special person to become a communications officer. You have to be ready to jump into the hot seat and be ready to go to the mat when the emergency calls begin to fly into the building.

One day the office may be filled with dozens of 911 calls responding to an emergency impacting many people or the dispatchers may be exposed to a caller who just wants to know when they can visit with their relatives in the jail. They may get calls from citizens asking how they can get mail or money to their loved ones in the jail or they may be calling in because the flood waters are rising or the electrical power to a region has been knocked out by an accident.

These men and women need to be able to handle all kinds of stress because the callers on the other end of the telephone line may be experiencing stress like they have never known before and our communications folks must be ready to handle all types of personalities.

Living in a small community we have had situations in the past where a dispatcher gets an emergency call from a relative or friend. The dispatchers can get emotionally attached to calls and they hurt for the family as well.

The pressure on the dispatcher can be great because our staff must make sure our deputies are kept safe as the first step. If law enforcement has not had a chance to make a scene safe, EMS staff and firefighters could be put in harm’s way.

Dispatchers spend a great deal of time with callers to make sure all of their needs are met before they let the call go.

When you speak to members of the WCSO Communications staff and ask them why they do it one answer comes back from everyone. Being a communications officer is gratifying because they are providing a service to Wakulla County and helping the citizens.

Another dispatcher said she loves that the work is never the same from day–to-day because nobody knows what will happen until they pick up the incoming call.

“The most enjoyable part of the job is helping the citizens,” said Lucy Gowdy. Lucy assists the agency through training, but on one particular day she was substituting for a dispatcher who went home ill.

“One day I go home laughing and one day I go home upset,” said Dispatcher Alice Hobbs. “No day is ever the same. I think it helps me appreciate the little things in life and being able to go home to a sense of normalcy.”

“I always hated not knowing about how the emergency calls turned out,” said Karen Kemp. Karen left the dispatch office to become the Crime Analyst for the WCSO. That is a route that former dispatcher Angie Gardner took as well.

“I knew when I took the calls that some were going to have a good outcome and others were not. But the idea that you may actually be able to help someone makes all the difference. That’s what keeps you going,” she said.

Emergency Management Director Scott Nelson supervises the Communications Unit and he knows first-hand how difficult life can be for the unit. The dispatchers work 12 hour days as the deputies do but they come on and go off at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. rather than 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. as the deputies do.

Dispatchers never know when the next call will be a life and death situation, but they must be able to handle the changes in voice inflections brought on by whatever the caller is seeing or experiencing, said Nelson.

A 911 caller’s voice changed dramatically as he came upon a serious traffic crash and realized he was observing someone he knew. Dozens of calls came into the dispatch office during a Saturday night when a helicopter clipped a power line and two of three people died in the crash.

“When that call first came in it was a power outage call,” said Nelson. “It was a short while after that when it became evident that we had more than a power outage.”

“Our communications officers have to make quick decisions and dispatch our resources as soon as possible,” added Nelson. “During that evening we were getting many calls and usually there is no release. Many times we don’t ever know the outcome.”

WCSO dispatchers are asked to multi-task while working. They are not only listening for phone calls and the special ring of the 911 line, but they must be able to communicate on the radio while also working through several computer screens that contain 911 call locations, driver license information through Driving And Vehicle Information Database (DAVID), GPS maps, NCIC-FCIC data bases for stolen property, teletype for communicating with other agencies and Smart Cop software that provides additional information about suspects, missing people or past cases and encounters.

The Florida Interoperability Network provides a secure interagency communications system for the entire State of Florida enabling a timely and effective method for public safety users to respond to critical events daily. The State Watch Office through the Division of Emergency Management provides our staff efficient communications during time of disasters and even communications with the federal government.

Communications officers cannot freeze in the middle of 911 emergency calls. They must be able to do everything they have been trained to do quickly and effectively. Since everything in the communications division is recorded, the dispatch staff has the unique situation where any mistake they make can be evaluated.

“It’s not an easy job,” said Director Nelson. “If I make a mistake on the job today, chances are it hasn’t being recorded. This job isn’t for everyone.”

On many shifts there are only two dispatchers working at one time so they must be able to do it all and do it all at once. There may be multiple 911 calls about a specific incident and dispatchers must carefully speak to each one of the callers in the event that one caller has different or more useful information that a previous caller did not have.

We take our communications operation very seriously and we are in the process of becoming accredited as a Certified 911 Telecommunications operation in addition to the sheriff’s office regular accreditation that occurs every three years. The dispatch accreditation occurs through the Florida Telecommunications Commission or FLA-TAC.

The sheriff’s office will become the first agency in the state with an accredited communications division when the evaluation ends later this year.

Lt. Brad Taylor is the Communications Supervisor under Director Nelson. Lt. Taylor is a jack of all trades and covers open dispatch shifts when necessary while also serving as an assistant to Director Nelson in the Emergency Management Division. Lt. Taylor and Lucy Gowdy have both been called to fill in for missing communications officers whenever the need arises.

During a recent emergency involving a crashed helicopter, Lt. Taylor came in to the Communications office to assist with the high volume of calls. After spending time answering calls in dispatch he was contacted by Director Nelson to bring light towers to the area of the helicopter crash so emergency workers could see what they doing in the dark of the night.

The Communications Division also includes our E-911 Coordinator Rachel Love. It is Rachel’s job to manage the communications equipment and make sure that every piece of equipment that we rely on for public safety is working properly and upgrades are made whenever necessary. She is also responsible for the 911 mapping and data base and her office keeps a record of all 911 calls that come into the agency.

Rachel and Scott worked with PIO Keith Blackmar when a major telecommunications line was cut near Highway 267 by a contractor working on the road last year. The communications line cut left Wakulla County on a communications island until the line could be repaired. Director Nelson was in Orlando at the time of the incident and was able to communicate with agencies outside Wakulla County and inform them about our problem. Rachel and Keith were able to use other methods of communication such as e-mails and social media to get information out during the outage. The communications line cut made cell phones useless for a large chunk of the day.

Citizens who have maintained their telephone land lines at their home can be found quickly as the land lines reveal the location of the caller instantly through our computer technology. Emergency help can be sent very quickly. Individuals who have cell phones can be located as well but it isn’t as exact as a street address. Since cellular telephones require towers to send and receive calls, the communications stream can be cut off when towers or related infrastructure is cut off. The victims of Hurricane Katrina quickly found out that their cell phones were of no help when towers were damaged in the storm or when demand for cell service quickly exceeded the available infrastructure.

Since the incident near Bloxham Cutoff last year, communications companies have taken additional precautions that hopefully will eliminate that type of an incident from cutting Wakulla County off from the rest of the region.

“Everyone got along well and we did things socially,” said Karen Kemp of the tight knit dispatch crew. “I spent 10 years doing it. It is exhausting mentally. I miss it every now and then but I am thankful to be on a regular schedule for family life. But we did have great camaraderie.”

If there is ever a special time for our Communications staff it is when a member of the public takes the time to thank them for their efforts in handling their call quickly and efficiently. It is special when a member of the community tells the staff that they made a difference in their life.

The Communications staff very much wants to dispatch the right people to the right places. They take it seriously and truly care about what they do. There are many females in the job field perhaps because they are caring and nurturing toward their fellow man. But we also rely on our male staff that does a great job as well.

We love to honor our Communications staff for the unsung work they do and National Public Safety Telecommunications Week was held Sunday, April 13 to Saturday, April 19. It gave us a chance to applaud the work they do.

Be safe and have a great month of May!

 

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