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911 dispatchers: Voices on other end of line

Ask any law enforcement officer, firefighter or emergency responder what their most important tool is, and the quick answer they’ll give is the dispatcher on the other end of the radio.

April 14-20 is Public Safety Telecommunicator Week, a week to recognize the countless voices behind the microphones who remain calm in times of extreme stress and who get help to those in need.

Director Wendy Jones heads telecommunications at the Halifax County E911 Dispatch Center supported by supervisors Bobbie Anderson, Kathy Myer, Sherry Smith and Shannon Sutton.

A total of 18 dispatchers, under the direction of Jones, are certified by the Virginia Crime Information Network, National Crime Information Center and in Emergency Medical Dispatch.

Organized in April 2004, the E911 dispatchers are the first voices people hear in times of emergencies.

Before any assistance arrives in the form of police officers, firefighters or EMS, the initial call is handled by one of these 18 behind-the-scenes unsung heroes.

According to Supervisor Anderson, when emergency calls are received at the Halifax County 911 Communications Center, the operator on duty determines what type of assistance is needed: emergency medical services, fire department or law enforcement officers.

The operator attempts to obtain as much information as he or she can from the caller including accurate directions or an address, the number and type of injuries or any other relevant information. Then the operator determines the initial level of response from the appropriate agency.

“Thankfully, not all the calls we receive are for emergency situations,” Anderson said. 

Dispatch officers often field inquiries on road and weather conditions, take reports about debris in the road or about livestock running loose near a highway.

Dispatchers are trained to access volumes of information to handle these calls as well as the many emergency calls coming through the office each day.

Anderson, and her fellow supervisors and dispatchers at the Halifax Communications Center, know their voices over the phone line can help calm a panicked citizen or frightened child, diffuse a violent situation, all while sending help.

Local dispatchers are the people who are seldom seen and all too often never get the proper appreciation for their efforts, but they know without a doubt they are the heart of the public safety profession, Anderson said.

In small dispatch centers such as the one in Halifax, dispatchers are charged with numerous duties and responsibilities including taking hundreds of calls daily, dispatching police and fire, providing basic medical assistance via phone and conducting searches in various public safety and law enforcement databases.

In addition to being a public safety link for citizen callers, these local 911 dispatchers provide an important link to on-scene responders as well, Anderson explained.

“The safety of police officers, firefighters and EMS personnel is always forefront in the mind of a 911 dispatcher,” she added. “This is not simply because we are their friends and co-workers, but also because the safety of our responders is fundamental to their ability to perform their jobs in providing services to the public.” 

Governor Bob McDonnell has proclaimed and officially recognized this week as Public Safety Telecommunicator Week and encourages the public to be aware of the responsibility to properly use 911 services by calling only when lives or property are in peril that increases the efficiency of the system and improves the chances that lives will be saved.

The governor also reminds citizens to take a moment this week to express appreciation to 911 dispatchers working behind the scenes in your area.

“Being a 911 dispatcher is a demanding, rewarding, incredible career. Stressful, challenging and often fast-paced, it’s not a career for everyone. But for those of us who ‘answer the call,’ it’s more than just a job, it’s a means of helping our communities in important ways,” Anderson concluded.