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February 6, 2013

Answering the Call: 911 dispatchers, the true first responders

VALDOSTA — The numbers 9-1-1 are immediately recognizable. It has become the national symbol for emergency and the number you call when you need help most. However, in the midst of chaos and the response of police, firefighters and emergency-medical services, many forget the true first responders of nearly every given emergency situation. The response that takes place when you pick up the phone panicked and after a few brief rings hear: “911, what’s your emergency?”

It isn’t often that telecommunication operators or 911 dispatchers get recognized for their service to the community.

There are dinners to honor police officers and news articles to praise firefighters for saving a home being engulfed in flames, but rarely do you see, hear or read about a dispatcher being congratulated for their part in saving a life.

Yet, it happens every day, 24 hours a day, seven days a week — the people at the Lowndes County Emergency Communication Center are saving lives. Danny Weeks, emergency communication center director, has taken more 911 calls in his life than he can count. He’s been employed with Lowndes County for 28 years.

“I’ve been the director since 2006,” said Weeks.

The Lowndes County call center is responsible for taking calls from Lowndes County including Valdosta, Hahira, Lake Park, Echols County, etc.

“We handle all public safety communications,” said Weeks.

With a staff of 37, Weeks and his team are tasked with answering every 911 call received, which adds up to about 630 calls for service every 24 hours, and dispatching them to the appropriate police, fire rescue or EMS responders.

“They answer the 911 call and then key that information in from the caller,” said Weeks.

Dispatchers are also trained to not only take information, but keep the callers on the line to keep them calm and get as much information from them as possible. It doesn’t just take a special person. It takes a person who is highly trained.

“Everybody here is state certified through POST (Peace Officer Standards and Training),” said Weeks.

Aside from POST training in Forsyth, every dispatcher receives an additional four to six months of training from an in-house, post-certified instructor, receives a certification from the Georgia Crime Information Center and is trained to administer CPR instructions.

“They give the caller instructions on what they are suppose to do,” said Weeks.

The entire Lowndes County Emergency Communication Center is also certified through the Commission of Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, a certification held by only 50 other agencies.

“Everyone here is highly trained,” said Weeks.

Weeks often says that it doesn’t matter how well trained your police officers are, how modern your fire or EMS equipment is — if you don’t have a good dispatcher, you don’t have a good call.

“A lot of people panic,” said dispatcher Melisa Evans. “You have to stay calm and talk them through.”

Evans knows all about the importance a dispatcher plays in a 911 call. After all, it was a 911 dispatcher 24 years ago that saved her life.

“When Melisa was being interviewed for this job ... one of the questions I asked was, have you ever dealt with a 911 call?” Weeks said.

Evans replied that when she was 6 years old, she and her sister had to call 911.

“It wasn’t exactly the answer I was looking for, but I let her talk to see what direction it would go in,” said Weeks.

“She started telling me about a time ... her and her 16-year-old sister were home alone,” said Weeks. “The doorbell rang and there were two guys at the door they didn’t know.”

Neither Evans nor her sister opened the door. Shortly after, they heard a racket coming from the back door of their house. The two men had a crowbar and were breaking open the back door.

“Her and her sister had gotten the phone and dragged it into the closet where they called 911,” said Weeks.

As Evans told the story during her interview, he began getting chills and he named the street of Evans’ childhood home.

“How did you know?” Evans asked.

“I was the dispatcher,” said Weeks.

Out of the thousands of calls that Weeks has taken during the past 28 years, he has always remembered this one.

“That’s one of those calls that has always stuck with me,” said Weeks.

For Evans, Weeks’ assistance that day was one of the reasons she wanted to become a dispatcher.

“It’s played a part in it because had we not had help that day ... There’s no telling what kind of danger I was in,” said Evans.

While the work of a dispatcher is often stressful, it is moments like these that are rewarding to Weeks and the other dispatchers.

“There was an arrest made and the police found merchandise from several other burglaries,” said Weeks. “It was touching to me to be face to face with something that had been successful.”

However, despite many happy endings, there are calls that do not end well.

“That’s when it takes a special person,” said Evans.

Evans recalled times when during her drive home from work, she prayed for callers. Weeks talked about seeing dispatchers who had to step away from their desk and cry outside.

“In the moment, you can’t get personally involved,” said Weeks.

But after the moment, after the call, the dispatchers snap back to reality and “become a person” again.

“We have counselors on call,” said Weeks. “... Sometimes you have to realize you did all you could.”

It is a culmination of these moments that create a camaraderie amongst the 911 dispatchers and call center staff.

“You get like family,” said Evans.

For more on this story and other local news, subscribe to The Valdosta Daily Times e-Edition, or our print edition

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