Emergency dispatchers: Continuing ed key for unseen heroes

Wylie Bell - RichmondCC
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HAMLET – Emergency dispatchers are the most important people you will never see. This is how Donna Wright, director of Richmond County Emergency Services, describes the telecommunicators on the other end of a 911 call.

Dispatchers, or public safety telecommunicators, serve as a vital link between fire, medical and law enforcement agencies, and this week their hard work and dedication is being recognized by National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week.

Wright said her dispatchers have been given T-shirts with the slogan, “Nerves of Steel, Hearts of Gold.”

“Because that’s what it takes to do this job. They’ve got to have the nerve to sit in that chair and handle whatever is thrown at them, but they also have a heart of gold because their overall intent is to help. While we have to be strong on the front, sometimes they break down on the backside from the human element of it all. It is stressful; sometimes it is heartbreaking.”

Continuing education key

Wright said her telecommunicators take on average nine hours of continuing education classes per month at Richmond Community College. With the recent outbreak of the Coronavirus, keeping up their certifications through these classes and learning new skills is of high importance.

“Think about what we’re dealing with today with the pandemic,” Wright said. “How does that impact how you interact and deal with your callers? How do you protect your officers and EMS and fire personnel? This is an ever evolving and ever changing industry.”

RichmondCC offers these classes online to dispatchers and emergency center managers across the state of North Carolina, helping them keep up to date in a technology driven industry. As Wright

noted, when she started working in 911 nearly 30 years ago, there was no such thing as a cell phone.

Medical advances

In addition to technology, telecommunicators must also be up to date on emerging medical technology.

“A medical director is over our medical dispatch program. We function under his medical license, and if we do not handle an emergency medical situation correctly, it’s his medical license that answers to our actions,” Wright said. “Every time there are advances in the medical field, it changes how paramedics respond and how we respond with our pre-arrival instructions.”

Telecommunicators have implemented a pandemic or emerging infectious disease protocol that has been approved by the medical director.

“They are making sure additional questions are asked and captured to show responders to the call — whether it’s fire, law enforcement or EMS — the potential of an infected person with the virus. This tells them how to approach a person with different types of protective equipment to keep them and their families safe. So we’re helping to identify those things before they get to the scene,” Wright said.

One-stop emergency shop

Richmond County consolidated its fire, rescue and law enforcement emergency services about a year and a half ago, becoming a one-stop dispatch center for all emergency services. On average, the center, which has 28 telecommunicators, receives per day about 130 personal emergency 911 calls and about 125 calls from security companies, equaling over 90,000 calls per year. In addition to other types of calls received and made by dispatch, Wright said there are about 450 telephone transactions over a 24-hour period.

As for Wright, she’s been in this business for 29 years, starting on night shift at the Hamlet Police Department.

“When 911 was starting up, it piqued my interest,” she said. “I started as an addressing technician for the county under 911 and worked my way through every position all the way to the top.”

Today, Wright is over 911, emergency management, the addressing system for the county and part of fire marshal’s role.

“The emergency management piece is really a priority right now because this is a public health emergency,” Wright said. “I support the public health director in managing and coordinating with him on all the things that are going on in the county’s response to COVID-19.”

To say the least, Wright said, “It’s been busy. But I have a good team behind me.”

Start your career

To learn more about continuing education opportunities at RichmondCC or other classes that lead to careers in emergency services, call the College at 910-410-1700 or visit www.richmondcc.edu.

RichmondCC is now registering students for summer and fall semesters.

Wylie Bell is director of marketing and communications at Richmond Community College.

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Wylie Bell

RichmondCC