Inside 911: High-tech help for folks in distress

Across the street from Oak Harbor’s city hall can be found a white, nondescript, unmarked building, apparently uninhabited.

Appearances can be deceiving — there’s someone present 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s usually four people, sometimes as many as six, and if you are in distress or in trouble, the anonymous workers inside could be the most important folks in your life.

Welcome to the home of Island County Emergency Services (I-COM) and the dispatchers who handle all the 911 calls on Whidbey and Camano islands.

The 911 concept has been in the news lately, nationally and right here on Whidbey Island. When fired sheriff deputy Jay Wallace partly blamed dispatchers for not giving him all the information he needed to do his job, some folks wondered how the system works.

It should be reassuring that inside the unassuming building in Oak Harbor are real people answering callers in distress.

Sitting before a bank of computer screens rivaling Star Trek’s Enterprise for its complexity, dispatchers accept, log and route calls to the county’s fire departments, emergency first-responders, police and sheriff deputies.

Those are the basics, but there’s a lot more to it.

Operations supervisor Alice Johnson has worked here since I-COM went on-line in 1997 and has come to appreciate the often delicate balance between tragedy and comedy.

“During the big storm in February, we got dozens of 911 calls from people complaining about food spoiling in their refrigerators,” she recalled. “Others were terrified they were to be evacuated from their homes,” she said. “The trick is to treat everyone with respect, concern and courtesy.”

During the storm, the center got 447 calls in the first 24 hours. Despite the high-tech factor, “Our job is simple; to help the public and keep our first-responders safe,” Johnson said.

Ten years ago island fire departments, police, Whidbey Telecom and emergency medical teams maintained their own 911 call centers.

“The 10 various user agencies decided to consolidate services and I-COM was born,” administrative assistant Kari Roll said. “This building was converted from an old fire station.”

By design, I-COM has a double-entry lobby, circumferential camera coverage, back-up generators and no windows — something like a bunker but without the mentality.

“Should there ever be a national disaster or civil unrest, this is a very secure facility,” Roll said.

There are only 19 dispatchers and each is cross-trained to work every position; the salary range is $16.40 to $19.52 an hour, but most of the crew is at the high end with years’ of experience.

The four screens at each console comprise the Computer Aided Dispatch system, state-of-the-art technology that each dispatcher must master during a year-long training period.

A typical set-up has one person dedicated to fire calls, another to EMT and a third to police with a supervisor providing back-up.

First is the touch-screen phone system. When a 911 call arrives it sets off a special ring and the screen momentarily rocks with a dizzy red light that commands attention.

The call is processed and logged — the computers maintain a permanent history of everything that happens — and the dispatcher types out a brief review of the problem. This allows everyone to keep track; if it gets busy, those not engaged can accept calls.

Immediately, the caller’s problem is typed into the system and sent to the proper agency — directly to county responders or to the State Patrol in Marysville if a highway situation develops.

The other screens are data displays where each call is prioritized, the status of all responders on duty is maintained, a global positioning map designed for cellular phone coverage can be checked — all accessed at the click of a mouse button.

Concomitantly, each dispatcher is hard-wired to their headset while tethered to their work station for the entire shift.

On each desk is a medical reference guide to help talk someone through a crisis, from childbirth and head injuries, from suicides to stab wounds.

Roll said that the increasing use of cell phones has created new concerns. Those calling on their mobile phone must always let dispatch know their address — the GPS mapping procedure is good but not perfect.

During a one-hour stretch Friday evening, the center posted these 911 calls:

• A woman phoned to report a dog wandering the street, possibly injured.

• A car ran into a light pole — no injuries but the driver was badly shaken.

• A man called from Camano Island to report marijuana growing nearby, on property owned by his brother.

• Several callers called that someone was waving a handgun outside the Oak Harbor Subway.

• A potential hazardous material crisis was averted when a call came in about a truck leaking gasoline.

• There were a number of 911 calls where no one was on the phone. The dispatcher checked the address and discovered a history of domestic violence; that data was forwarded to an officer checking out the residence.

“We do whatever we can to provide officers with as much information as possible,” Johnson noted. “We can access state and national data banks very quickly.”

• Oak Harbor Police delivered a felony warrant at gunpoint. Inside I-COM, the dispatcher’s adrenaline level rose a bit, literally as each console can be electrically raised to allow them to work standing.

• Finally, a detective called to report the guy with the gun had been arrested at his home. Dispatch had warned the policeman of previous arrests, plus current warrants on the suspect.

During a lull, Johnson told of a lady tourist in Langley years ago who complained she couldn’t sleep.

“Could you send an officer out to get rid of those gray whales making all that noise offshore?”

Not every call is benign.

“It was a casual night about four years ago; suddenly I was hearing screams and gunshots over the phone as reports came in of a man shooting people in Freeland,” Johnson remembered. “Things got tense, but everyone worked the phone and did their job. Three people died [the shooter committed suicide] and several were injured.”

The key is to stay calm in a crisis.

“Not everyone can do that,” Roll said. “You need a special combination of temperament, smarts, people-skills, tenacity and character.”

Not to mention the ability to multi-task.

“In fact, we’re searching for someone with just those qualities right now,” Roll added. “If someone with experience reads this, have them call me at 360-679-3903.”

But, if every call you get is from a person experiencing some level of distress, why would anyone want the job? After all, no one ever calls just to say thanks.

Dustin Soptich, whose father is Oak Harbor’s fire chief, has been with I-COM for two years.

“It’s a good job, something new every day,” he said. “And the people here are the best.”

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