This is the second story in a series covering the function and service details of the Huntsville-Madison County 9-1-1 Center.
There is a list of simple questions etched into their brains, the same “W” questions that form the basis of journalism as well.
But with one eerie twist.
Who? What? When? Where?
And, hardly last or least, weapons?
That’s the extra burden in an already pressure-packed world of the call-takers and dispatchers of the Huntsville Police Department who work out of the Huntsville-Madison County 9-1-1 Center. Are weapons involved in the incident you’re reporting? is a “must” question to ask.
There are 23 dispatchers and three shift supervisors in the HPD area of the center. The 9-1-1 center is marking National Safety Telecommunicators Week this week. On this relatively calm afternoon, a dispatcher has just issued a call to which a pair of officers is responding. There is no weapon and the “who” is already known. One could even add a “why” to this puzzle: it’s a disgruntled former employee making a scene at a fast-food restaurant from which he was recently fired.
A computer screen displays a brief summation of the incident. A map is on another screen, and two small green rectangles dart across the map, signifying the patrol cars on the move to the restaurant.
You take all this information and you get involved and it just ends. It’s like reading a book with the last two chapters torn out.”
Stephanie White, a dispatcher for more than 20 years and the training officer for the department, explains the process that led to the response unfolding on the screen, or for any other call they receive.
The first step is learning the location of the caller, White says. That way, if the call is cut off, help can still be sent. Then come the other questions, following up one after the other.
This is where the magic of Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) comes in. The call-taker begins typing the information, and based on the data, the computer knows whether to loop in other agencies. For instances, a fender-bender would be assigned to a police officer in the vicinity; an accident with injuries would also be sent to Huntsville Fire & Rescue and HEMSI.
The information pops up on a dispatcher’s screen, and officers are radioed to the scene even as the call-taker may still be mining for more information and detail. Callers should not be alarmed if they’re kept on the phone for several minutes; help is already on the way.
That’s a routine – with nothing routine about it and with a broad spectrum of calls – repeated dozens of times a day. For a dispatcher, there’s satisfaction in helping. But there’s no closure. Most times, they have no idea of the final outcome.
“You take all this information and you get involved and it just ends,” White says. “It’s like reading a book with the last two chapters torn out.”
Working the consoles on this afternoon are a couple of trainees, with veteran dispatchers all but attached at the hip. The Huntsville Police Department holds an extensive 32-week training session for potential 9-1-1 workers.
It begins with six weeks of classroom training that starts with a basic telecommunicators’ course that includes a week on the streets riding with officers. They’re taught what information to take on calls and what goes out on the radio to offices. They’re lectured by representatives from various branches of HPD on their specializations.
Then comes two weeks of “Dispatch Academy,” working on simulators, “and after that the real fun starts,” White says. They spent six weeks with a trainer to learn how to take calls, then 20 weeks of radio training.
“They start out not being able to understand a single thing the officers say,” White says. “I always tell them it’s like learning a new language.”
There are certain shared traits among the diverse personalities under the 9-1-1 roof. There is a patience and calmness that is required.
“But the biggest thing would be that everyone here wants to help, wants to make a difference,” White says. “We see the big picture. We get yelled at, we get called names we’ve never heard before. But you realize this person is going through something very traumatic. And you’re the answer to their problem.”