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Newton 911 dispatchers: unsung heroes
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It’s a relatively calm morning at the Newton County 911 center. Nate Stykes is giving instructions to a mother whose child is having a seizure. A few feet away, Love Frazier assures an elderly individual with chest pains that an ambulance is on the way.

“I like giving back, [being] the other voice on the end of the phone, so that when somebody calls and needs us, we’re here,” said Stykes, who has been a 911 dispatcher for seven years.

Newton County is growing, and the demands on the center have risen accordingly. According to the center’s annual 2014 report, released this past week, the center received 142,561 calls last year, up 7.8% from 2013.

Despite the rise in volume, the center was able to decrease average call dispatch time by three seconds, from 1 minute, 48 seconds in 2013 to 1 minute, 45 seconds in 2014. Those three seconds could be the difference between life and death for someone awaiting emergency medical care.

Ring times, however, went up slightly. In 2013, 99% of all 911 calls were answered within 10 seconds, compared to 98.3% in 2014.

For Director Mike Smith, the rise in call volume and ring time are indications that the center needs to monitor demand closely to ensure necessary changes are made when the time comes. The center will not seek additional resources this year, he said, but eventually it will. The center currently operates at about $3,064,000 a year.

“The quicker we can get a call dispatched, the quicker we can get help there,” Smith said. “As the county continues to grow, we’ll just have to monitor that.”

Smith calls the 911 dispatchers the “unseen heroes” of emergency response. The work is both challenging and emotionally taxing. Larger counties have dedicated call takers while dispatchers remain on the radio with first responders, but in Newton County, dispatchers have to do both jobs simultaneously.

“This job is not made for a lot of people,” Leanne Moore said. “I was pregnant last year when I got a call about a five month old that went into cardiac arrest…Now that I have my own child, dealing with a lot of the calls that deal with children and infants, kinda hits home a little bit more for me.”

For Frazier, the call that sticks with her was from a man who had just beaten his step son so severely the child later died. Frazier says interacting with people at their most vulnerable has changed her outlook on life.

“Everybody has an emergency, whether it’s a man or a woman, a juvenile or an adult… when someone is in need of [assistance]….it’s not about who you are as a person,” she said.

Team Leader Sarah Herbert has distinguished herself as the expert in talking to elderly individuals, some of whom are confused and may not be able to articulate where they are and what they need. Herbert says she thinks of her own grandmother, and how she would want her to be treated.

“I mean, I’m proud of what I do, especially when I know I’ve helped someone, or I’m getting someone help,” she said.
Of course, the center gets its fair share of non-emergency calls. Herbert says sometimes the center gets calls from lonely older people looking for someone to talk to. Once, a young teenage boy called to ask if he could get a ride to his girlfriend’s house “because she missed him.”

“He just didn’t understand that that’s not an emergency,” Herbert recalls, laughing.

Another common problem is that many people assume 911 dispatchers can automatically track their location without an address, a problem that has been exacerbated by the ubiquity of cell phones.

Some days are busier than others, notably holidays and—unnervingly—Friday the 13th. But despite the sometimes tedious, sometimes harrowing nature of the job, several dispatchers say they would not consider leaving for a less stressful career.

“Even though this job is repetitive, you still never know what you’re going to get into,” Frazier said. “We get the same type of calls every day; we know we’re going to get the alarms and the hang ups, but there’s always a day where that one hang up could be a murder or could be a burglary in progress.”

Micah Tyler is also motivated by a desire to serve his community, and even finds himself slipping into dispatcher mode in daily life.

“I catch myself talking in 10 codes and signals that we use up here,” he says before turning his attention to another incoming call.