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National Public Safety Telecommunicators' Week: A Time to Refocus

Author: Barry Furey

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2016-04-10
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Recently, the Editor and I began exchanging emails about this month’s column. While there were some technical issues worthy of discussion, it was also time for National Public Safety Telecommunicator’s Week – something that certainly couldn’t be ignored. But, what to say? I’ve opined in the past that we should not focus on a singular seven day stretch, but rather on year round recognition, and have talked about how those with limited resources could gather giveaways and testimonials from government agencies and private industries at little or no costs. No, let’s not revisit that thread just yet.  Maybe I should cover the fact that this is the 35th year since the idea was born in California, and the 25th year since President Clinton formally recognized the event? Either of these must certainly be an appropriate anniversary on which to recognize the efforts of all who made it possible.

I was still contemplating, when the answer landed on my doorstep, or more correctly in my Facebook account. It was a post from Amy Johnson, a former dispatcher discussing the week that her once co-workers recently had in Sevier County, Tennessee. For those unfamiliar, this lovely tract of land encompasses the entrance to the Smoky Mountains National Park, and is the birthplace of Dolly Parton. It is also home to Dollywood, the amusement park that bears her name, and a blossoming vacation industry of cabins, outlets, and venues that surround it.

Helicopter rides are also another cottage industry, offering sightseeing tours of the natural beauty of the area. The crash of one recent flight and the death of five people, spurred her to write her thoughts about how this, and a simultaneous string of serious events, impacted the folks at her former center. With her permission, here is that story.

“Growing up in the South, you will frequently hear the phrase: 'It hit the fan.' I don’t think I ever truly understood the meaning until I went to work for Sevier County 911 dispatch. And yesterday, it definitely hit the fan in Sevier County.

Y’all all know Ruby’s burned to a crisp in Pigeon Forge on Sunday, which is hard enough to deal with. It’s terrible when it’s a home out in the county, but when it’s high profile business in the middle of town, you have to deal with all the media, too. And then the helicopter crash yesterday afternoon. You think about that. Phone rings, more than likely it’s someone ABSOLUTELY HYSTERICAL because they’ve watched a helicopter fall from the sky and burst into flames. You can’t believe your ears, you hope it’s someone off their meds but then all the phone lines light up at once as the calls pour in from hundreds of eyewitnesses. You might hear screaming from the victims. The trunk lines fill (that’s 7 phone lines with twelve calls apiece for six dispatchers to answer, if I remember correctly). Your first dispatcher starts doing what they do- methodically mashing buttons and maintaining a calm demeanor while in a monotone voice delivering the worst news the EMS world will probably hear all day. And from there, it all goes downhill. And by downhill, I actually mean it escalates.

Television and radio broadcasters are constantly monitoring the ambulance, fire, rescue, and police frequencies to stay abreast of breaking news. So they start calling administrative lines to get what little information dispatchers can give them. The calls from passers-by never stop. And then you have about 20 units responding to an accident of that caliber for you stay in touch with. Once the initial dispatch goes out, they copy you. You note that time. They tell you they’re en route. You notate time and give them the most explicit directions possible, speaking no more than two words a second although it feels as though all hell is breaking loose around you. Multiply times 10, as different agencies go en route on different frequencies. This is assuming you have a pinpointed, exact location and aren’t sending them in the general area. You give each truck a time they arrive on scene. And the chaos builds. You feel like your head is going to explode as instructions are shouted by command as they try to establish control of a mob scene. You call Lifestar and work with command to establish an LZ (landing zone) and give the pilots coordinates. I don’t think Lifestar was dispatched yesterday, it was too instantaneous. And then it truly IS hell, as a forest fire is ignited from the fiery remnants of the helicopter. Once the flames are extinguished, if will smolder for a few days as a grim reminder of a horrific accident.

But, the helicopter crash was just an added stress on top of everything else: all the regular calls of heart attacks, strokes, seizures, falls, MVA’s (car wrecks), brush fires started by homeowners on a windy day, and whatever else, including accidental calls. Then the fire that’s been burning in Cocke County crosses the county line on English Mountain and it’s our responsibility now. It’s massive, so Wildland Task Force is toned out. Now you’ve got one. Wildland Task Force is one of those things you learn about in training that is so spectacularly awful you think it will never be utilized. You tone out every fire department in the county and you call the Forestry service and roust the superintendent out of bed. You call surrounding dispatch centers to move their units to the county line to stand by in case something else comes in. This happens a few times a year, if you’re lucky. And after all that, if you have time, you pray. Calls from homeowners pour in as the flames encroach. The Red Cross sets up a replenishment station. It is pure insanity. All these things happened in twelve hours yesterday at our dispatch center.

If you’re a telecommunicator, your job probably sucks. You probably get lied to, screamed at, cussed, talked down to, and worked like a borrowed mine mule for no recognition whatsoever. But did anybody die? If you had stood paralyzed, would anybody have had a different outcome in their life? Would they have perished?

Pray for our dispatchers. They need it as badly as anyone I know. They had a dang bad day yesterday.”

And likely, they were not alone. Similar stories like this play out in PSAPs across our country every day of the year.  And folks like those in Sevier County answer the call. Thank-you, Amy, for reminding us that the focus should never be placed on the week, but rather on the people it is meant to honor.

With more than 45 years’ experience in public safety, including managing large consolidated dispatch centers in three states, Barry Furey now serves as a trainer and consultant for the 9-1-1 and public safety communications community.  See

These NPSTW-related stories may interest you:

The Calls Will Go On: NPSTW & The Titanic Anniversary by Dave Larton
From 2012: Did you know that there is a link between the NPSTW and one of the greatest disasters of the twentieth century? This year commemorates the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 15, 1912. How can answering a 9-1-1 line or monitoring a radio channel be related to an event over one hundred years ago?

Celebrate National Public Safety Telecommunicators' Week on Facebook
From 2010: A Facebook page was created in 2010 in honor of National Public Safety Telecommunicator's Week, dedicated "to all of the men and women staffing our Nation's PSAPs." Facebook users can "like" the NPSTW page and keep up to date about press conferences, public announcements, banquets, and PSAP parties that 9-1-1 agencies across the country...

For Those Who Wear the Headset: The Thin Gold Line by Ryan Dedmon
From 2015: Dispatchers and communication operators at public-safety agencies (police/fire/EMS) across the world are often forgotten because the public eye rarely focuses on the unsung heroes who wear the headset.  But today, the Thin Gold Line shines ever so bright and we see the brave men and women who help us when we call in our darkest hours… the men and women who work as emergency dispatchers.

From the Chair: April Foolishness by Paul D. Bagley
From 2013: Paul Bagley’s new takes a fun look at the bewildering array of designated commemorations  — including National 9-1-1 Education Month, and National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week — that are packed into April.

What Use Our Work? By Barry Furey
From 2013: As April rolls around again, we spend time educating the public about 9-1-1 and honoring our brightest and best employees. But, it seems to me that one thing we rarely do is sit back and take a long hard look at what it is that we really do, because absent of the speeches, proclamations, and news clips lies this measure. And what we really do is pretty darn good.



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