Hot Line: The dedicated work of Fire & Rescue dispatchers

single-meta-cal April 13, 2017

This is the third and final story in a series covering the function and service details of the Huntsville-Madison County 9-1-1 Center.

The arcade noise of pings and beeps and dings and boops provides the background and suggests frantic activity.

In fact, happily, it’s been just the opposite.

“Pretty easy day,” says a dispatcher.

“But I don’t want to jinx it,” she continues, politely changing a visitor’s course of conversation.

In the far left corner of the operations room at the Huntsville-Madison County 9-1-1 Center, four dispatchers for Huntsville Fire & Rescue (HFR) are seated at consoles, with phones ringing and their computers talking back at them in beeps and dings.

The HFR staff – four people and a supervisor for each of three daily ‘round-the-clock shifts – share the operations room with dispatchers from various other agencies. It also shares some bit of celebration right now: This is National Safety Telecommunicators Week.

Sure enough, the jinx is tempted. A 911 call rings through at another console, only to quickly vanish as the caller hangs up. It could have been inadvertent, or it could be legit. With the enhanced 911 service, the computer screen displays caller ID; though a caller will also be asked for his or her name, it remains confidential.

The Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system assures the information from a caller is pushed along to the proper dispatcher. It might go to multiple agencies, or simply to a fire dispatcher who orders firefighters into duty.

Within seconds of receiving a call, the appropriate fire hall is contacted. Two engines and a ladder truck are sent to a house fire. More engines would be sent to a multi-story building fire.

We can be in here all day (in the windowless operations center) and I can tell you when it’s raining, based on the calls we get.”

As firefighters are hustling into their boots and gear – alas, no sliding down brass poles from upstairs – the 9-1-1 center is still collecting information from the caller or, likely as not, multiple callers. Captains are continually updated as scripted questions are being asked of the callers.

Is there smoke or flames or both? Is it just the smell of smoke? Is it the smell of something else burning, and what does it smell like? How many floors are in the house? What floor is the fire located on? Are flames going through the roof?

“It’s possible you can ask enough questions to be able to paint a clear picture of what the firefighters will find when they arrive on the scene,” says Nancy Hanvey, supervisor of the HFD’s safety telecommunicators team.

Hanvey has worked in emergency telecommunications for 34 years. She was working on the day when the fatal 1989 tornado struck the Airport Road area and south Huntsville. So was Gerrianne Boatright, a 35-year veteran.

Hanvey has been at work when they field 120 calls in an hour-and-a-half period, but that’s extraordinary. It’s not just fires that keep them busy. Wrecks and other calamities prompt calls. And rainy weather prompts those wrecks. Says Hanvey, “We can be in here all day (in the windowless operations center) and I can tell you when it’s raining, based on the calls we get.”

Even worse weather brings the biggest challenge for dispatchers. Hanvey was the supervisor on April 27, 2011, when the area was struck by a series of tornadoes.

“April 27 was any plane crash, any thunderstorm, the Five Points tornado, the Airport Road tornado all rolled into one. It was the longest day I can remember,” she says. “The chief (Howard McFarlen) was standing right there trying to ask me questions and I couldn’t even get off the radio long enough to answer him.”

Though her job requires more supervisory and planning work, she still covets time to work on the console. Says Hanvey, “It gets in your blood.”

She says she has a knack “to remain calm about things that I don’t necessarily handle as well at home.” And sometimes the two intersect.

She was working dispatch one day when she ordered firefighters to respond to a familiar neighborhood, though the caller provided a wrong address. As the truck arrived at the scene and reported the correct address, the realization socked Hanvey in the gut. She had just dispatched a truck that would be extinguishing a fire that had erupted in her own kitchen.

PART 1: Saving lives at 911 Center commands regional cooperation

PART 2:  A look at the pivotal role HPD dispatchers play at the 9-1-1 Center