‘Worst day of their life’
Whenever 911 is called a dispatcher answers — a person whose job revolves around figuring out where emergencies are and getting first responders to the scene as quickly as possible.
As the call continues, they will continue to ask more questions. They are gathering information to help police, emergency medical technicians, EMTs, and firefighters respond.
“It’s the worst day of their life when they are calling 911, and as a dispatcher you have to deal with that caller and reassure them and let them know that you’ll be there and that first responders will arrive,” said Tracy Lemley, Hancock County 911 Dispatch Center director.
The Hancock County EMS 911 Dispatch Center houses two departments, the 911 Dispatch Center and the Office of Emergency Management.
Bob Vidas, executive director of the Office of Technology and Communications, oversees the center. He explained the center exists to process and handle all emergency communications for Hancock County.
The 911 Dispatch Center dispatches emergency personal across Hancock County. It is also responsible for dispatching in Weirton, which is located in both Hancock and Brooke counties.
Lemley started as a part-time dispatcher in 1986. In 2004, she was named the director of the dispatch center. Lemley is the first county director.
“It was one of the hardest jobs that you’ll ever want to do. I know that it can be overwhelming. It can be thankless, it can be very, very stressful and difficult, but it can also be rewarding, when you are giving information and you hear that baby that wasn’t breathing take its first breath or starts to cry,” she said.
“Or when you’re dealing with an elderly person who’s called because their husband or wife of 62 years, hasn’t woke up from the night and you got to hear that,” she continued. “Or you hear the mother or father call in and they’re begging you to save their baby, and it’s a possible drug overdose, they don’t see them as an adult they see them as their baby.”
As director Lemley manages the day-to-day operation of the dispatch center, she does time sheets, schedules employees, fields complaints and acts as a liaison for the center. She relays information to Vidas who reports to the Commissioners.
Located on Route 2 in New Cumberland, the center was built in 2015. Originally the dispatchers worked in a center located in the County Courthouse. The center has five dispatch stations. Two of the stations are fire and emergency medical services (EMS). Another is for Weirton. Another serves the county’s sheriff and police departments. A fifth station is used for training new dispatchers. Every station has six monitors, each with a specific purpose.
Typically the center has three dispatchers working. Each station has a designated role, but the dispatchers work together. The dispatchers work 12-hours shifts. They work two weekends every month, and they usually don’t work more than four days in a row.
On Aug. 14, Hancock County experienced a shooter incident. A number of first responders from around the area offered assistance to the Hancock County Sheriff Department. That was the first time all five dispatch stations were in simultaneous use.
“The work they did during the active shooting incident a few months back was incredible, they made thousands of transactions and they passed with flying colors,” said Sheriff Ralph Fletcher. “And even more amazing there were dispatches who were off that day who came into work because they knew what was going on and they wanted to help each other.”
During the three-hour series of incidents, the 911 dispatch center received 155 phone calls and made 1,977 radio transmissions, averaging 11 calls a minute.
“It’s stressful at times — you never know what you’re walking into when you come to work,” said Aaron Beaumont.
Beaumont has been with the center for 10 years, and has been a part of the Newell Fire Department for 20 years. His mother was a dispatcher and he grew up around it. But to him being a dispatcher is just another way to help his community. Beaumont was one of the five dispatchers who worked on Aug. 14.
“It was a very long shift. We did the best we could and we had a good team working that day,” he said.
The ideal staffing for the center is 12 full-time and six part-time dispatchers. Currently, there are 10 full-time and four part-time dispatchers. Vidas reported three of those dispatchers were recently hired and they hope to have a full roster soon.
“I have a great deal of respect for everyone at the 911 center. They work a highly stressful job, they are under a lot of pressure and they work long hours,” he said.
“But they are just trying to help people who are in distress and they keep an eye on our officers, and they try to gather as much information as they can to inform and to keep our officers safe. They have my full respect and admiration. They are dedicated to our community.”
The dispatchers complete a 40-hour APCO International telecommunication training, a 32-hour emergency medical dispatching training and they learn to use the West Virginia automated public network. There are also additional training the dispatchers can take. Three of the five dispatchers who worked on Aug. 14 had completed an active shooter training.
“We were fortunate to have all three of them who had that training be there. How much of it came in use, I don’t know, because there was so much going on and so many scenes happening at one time,” Lemley said. “What I do know is that they all did fantastic, and to have something of that magnitude happen, but for them to be able to handle it and process it the way that they did, I just couldn’t be more proud.”
Lemley also wants to remind residents to pay attention to their surroundings and to know where they are at. It helps the dispatchers get first responders to the scene faster and it helps them do their job.