Officials with the Washington County 911 Emergency Communications District say that is why it is so important for their dispatchers obtain as much information as quickly as possible from each 911 call. Greg Matherly, the county’s 911 director, said that information can often mean the difference between life and death.
“Our mission is to deliver the most prompt and efficient services possible,” Matherly said. “That requires answering those 911 calls and getting as much information as we can to dispatch those services promptly.”
Matherly said Washington County 911 dispatchers handled a total of 264,410 emergency and administrative calls in 2018. Of that number, 180,627 were recorded as computer aided dispatch, or CAD, calls.
Matherly said E911 has a “pre-alerting system” in place that begins sending responders to critical emergencies even while dispatchers are still gathering information. He said getting those services “out of the gates” early helps to improve outcomes.
Washington County 911 has 47 employees, of which 39 are dispatchers who work 12-hour shifts. There are four dispatch shifts, which correspond with those worked by fire, police and EMS officers.
There are eight dispatchers per shift, however, extra call takers may be on duty during busier times, such as the day shift. Extra dispatchers may also be asked to work during extreme weather and special events, such as President Donald Trump’s visit to Johnson City’s Freedom Hall in October.
Mapping and street addressing is an important task for Washington County 911. Matherly said coming up with appropriate road names as the county grows is very important.
“We don’t want to repeat road names,” he said.
One continuing challenge for 911 dispatchers is to pinpoint where cell calls are coming from. Matherly said specific street address information appears with calls from landlines, but dispatchers have to rely on nearby cell towers to zero in on a caller’s exact location. It is these cases where callers need to give accurate information on the actual street address.
“A lot of people rely on GPS nowadays. so the hardest thing for dispatchers is to determine where the caller is located,” Matherly said.
A cellphone app called “Rapid SOS” can help deliver that information to a 911 communications center, but Matherly said the user must download relevant data to his or her phone.
Washington County 911 celebrated its 30th anniversary last year. The emergency communications district took its first emergency call at its former operations center at the Ashe Street Courthouse on Nov. 15, 1988. Since moving to its new communications center at 4722 Lake Park Drive in Johnson City, Matherly said E911 has been able to grow its training and employee services.