New and Improved

Published 10:25 am Monday, August 15, 2016

WINTON – Sometimes, things that are new are not always better.

One exception to that rule is the new Hertford County Central Communications Center.

One month after its opening, the new Center has been well-received by all branches of Hertford County law enforcement, EMS and the county’s fire departments.

The $4.25 million project was 100 percent grant funded through E-911 surcharges paid monthly by land line and cell phone users. Those funds are maintained and dispersed by the North Carolina 9-1-1 Board.

Hertford County local government applied for a grant three years ago to bring three emergency dispatch points (Hertford County Sheriff’s Office, Ahoskie Police and Murfreesboro Police) under one roof.

“The plan all along was to consolidate three, one-seat dispatch points into one, three-seat dispatch center. That newly consolidated effort operates 24/7/365,” said David Brown, Hertford County Central Dispatch Director.

“This Center has streamlined the county’s processing of emergency calls and has enabled more efficient responses and has also expedited emergency response times by cutting down on call transfers and facilitating the use of the same dispatch and mapping technology by all emergency responders,” Brown added.

Inside the dispatch room are four operational desks, each with four computer screens that the dispatcher uses in receiving 9-11 calls, mapping the location of the call and then deploying the emergency responders as needed.

“We actually have the ability to sit six dispatchers,” Brown noted. “Right now we only have four desks with the complete systems. The other two do not have radio (dispatch) systems. Should we have a huge event, we can use all six desks; using the two non-radio locations just as call takers. They can answer the 9-11 calls and enter the info on our CAD (Computer Aided Dispatch) units and then the other four dispatchers can see that info on their CAD screens and take over from that point.

“To be completely honest, I would rather not see an event occur that would require all six stations to be manned, but we have that capability should such a catastrophic event arise,” he added.

Around the clock, three dispatchers per 12-hour shift work the phones and guide emergency responders to where they’re needed. The county employs 12 dispatchers who work rotating shifts.

Those dispatchers, Brown said, are initially required to undergo 90 days of on-the-job training. Additional requirements include DCI (Division of Criminal Information, a statewide network) instruction offered by the North Carolina SBI.

“I have a policy that says within the first year of employment here that you must be Basic Telecommunicator certified, you must be DCI certified, you must complete the National Incident Management classes, and you must be CPR certified,” Brown stressed. “But the way you learn how to actually talk on the radio and dispatch emergency responders is to simply sit down in the chair and do it.”

The key to faster response at the newly opened Central Communications Center is the fact that there are three times more dispatchers per shift.

“Unless something really crazy happens in the county all at one time, we can handle these calls and serve as the sole dispatch point for the Sheriff’s Office, the Ahoskie Police, Murfreesboro Police, Hertford County EMS, and all the fire departments in the county,” Brown stated.

That’s three times the dispatch “power” previously used.

“Before, our dispatchers at the Sheriff’s Office and at the two police departments were on their own,” he said. “They handled everything, all calls, by themselves. Delays occurred on occasion because of the volume of calls.”

Brown stressed the importance of the timely processing of those calls.

“Seconds count, minutes count, especially if a person’s life is hanging in the balance,” he said.

Brown said the State 9-1-1 Board has set a standard for emergency dispatchers to answer at least 90 percent of their calls within 10 seconds. Since the opening of Hertford County Central Communications on July 12, their “10-second answer” rate is 97.58 percent.

“I told my staff how proud I am of their efforts; I reminded them there are multi-seat dispatch centers in larger areas of our state that do not come close to matching our answer rate,” Brown boasted.

He is also proud of the way the dispatchers handle those calls and deploy the emergency responders in an equally timely manner.

“Now when we received a call we can instantly trace that caller to a point on a map on the computer screen; we can pinpoint that location by cross street, by how many houses down or up from a particular intersection, etc.,” Brown emphasized. “That speeds up our response time.”

The new radio system also has built-in timers to remind the dispatchers to check in on law enforcement officers and EMS personnel in the field in case they have not “checked-in” with Central Communications over a pre-set period of time.

“That’s a great safety feature for the personnel out on a call,” he said. “We also have the technology to pin-point the precise location of a emergency response vehicle in the county.”

Brown said he has received positive feedback from the county’s emergency responders about the new system.

“That makes me feel good that we’re doing it right,” Brown said. “It wasn’t just because of me or the dispatchers here, it was a team effort all the way through this process of combining three dispatch centers into one. That process started three years ago before I was hired by the county.”

The new system also has the capability of storing information that could assist emergency responders to be better prepared for any obstacles awaiting them at a certain address. Brown said this information needs to be “keyed” into the system.

“When we first opened, we dumped all the data from the CAD systems at the other dispatch points into our system…that’s what we started with,” Brown noted. “All the other information needs to be added. It will require time to get all that info loaded into our system.”

Brown explained step-by-step how a 9-1-1 call is answered at Hertford County Central Communications. The dispatcher answers the call and initially asks questions to determine what type of emergency response is needed and where. If it’s a rescue call, then certain questions are asked about medical condition of the patient. Additional information is obtained, to include the name of the caller and a call-back number just in case the original call is disconnected.

“Keep in mind that in some instances the caller is hysterical because their friend or loved one is suffering from an extreme medical condition,” Brown said. “Our dispatchers are trained to be calm in those situations in an effort to calm the caller. It’s tough to obtain accurate information when someone is screaming.”

After taking the information, the dispatcher enters those notes into the CAD system and issues a CFS (Call For Service) which dispatches the appropriate units, whether its law enforcement, rescue, fire….or all of them at one time if needed to answer the same call.

“Those responding units also receive a text message, generated by the CAD and the dispatcher, giving a brief description of the call and the address,” Brown said.

For residential structure fires, Brown said the CAD map will show the dispatcher which departments need to go. Fire departments in Hertford County (outside the three major towns: Ahoskie, Murfreesboro, Winton) have automatic mutual aid on structure fires – the primary department and closest secondary department are paged out simultaneously.

Brown said calls made from land lines, the CAD will “populate” that information with the address assigned to that particular telephone number. However, calls placed from cell phones present some issues.

“Our system will want to ‘re-bid’ that call, by that I mean the system wants to triangulate the area of the caller by using several local cell towers,” he noted. “That doesn’t always work; some of the older model cell phones are hard to track. The newer phones are easy to populate and track.”

In some cases, cell phone calls will come into Hertford County Central Communications from bordering Northampton County, especially its eastern end.

“We have the ability now to figure out where you are located; once we determine that you need help in Northampton, our system is equipped with a one-button transfer, meaning that call is quickly handed over to Northampton Central Communications in Jackson,” Brown said. “We have programmed our system with numerous transfer buttons to direct callers to the appropriate agencies should those calls come in from Bertie, Gates, or even from Southampton County, Virginia.”

Dispatchers also have “one-touch” contact with the NC Forest Service, NC Highway Patrol, Hertford County Emergency Management, all Hertford County Magistrates, and even the individual cell phones of each law enforcement officer (Sheriff’s Office, and the two municipal police departments). One portion of each computer screen shows the dispatchers which law enforcement officers are on duty.

While the new radio system is state-of-the-art, so is the facility. It contains secured entranceways and all glass is bulletproof.

The facility also includes office space for supervisors, break room/kitchen, restrooms, bunk rooms, lockers, showers, and storage areas. It also features a large meeting room, where tables are wired for laptop computers, as well as an office for Hertford County Emergency Management Director Chris Smith.

“This building doubles as a Command Center in case it’s needed to handle all the logistics necessary in the event of a natural or man-made disaster,” Brown said. “Chris can move right in and operate that end of the Center.”

Brown also reminded that after 5 p.m. on weekdays, all calls going to the Ahoskie and Murfreesboro Police Departments are automatically transferred to Central Dispatch. Citizens can use the Central Dispatch direct number (252-358-0231) for those types of calls, but dial 9-1-1 for all emergencies.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

email author More by Cal