Task force raises public awareness

Published 6:49 pm Tuesday, November 5, 2019

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JACKSON – Sherry Herzing, Director of the Lake Gaston 911 Community Task Force, gave an informational presentation to the Northampton Commissioners at their regular meeting here Monday, Nov. 4. Her goal is to spread awareness among the public about the challenges first responders face in rural counties.

Herzing explained she formed the task force a few months after her husband passed away from a heart attack. He was in Brunswick County, VA at the time—one of the five counties which borders Lake Gaston—but cell phone calls to 911 kept redirecting multiple times to Warren County, NC instead.

“The caller was told to hang up the phone and dial a 10-digit number [for Brunswick County]. Of course, he’s trying to do CPR. He’s out on a driveway. He has nothing to write anything down with. He can’t do that,” Herzing said.

Eventually, they were able to get in touch with first responders in the correct county, but it was too late to save Herzing’s husband.

“At the time, I didn’t realize the severity of some of the issues we have in rural counties,” she continued. “Cell phones do not work in rural areas. We don’t have enough cell towers. We don’t have enough bandwidth. It’s just not going to work.”

Herzing cited a test done by Brunswick County Sheriff B.K. Roberts who called 911 with his cell phone 24 times in different parts of the county. Only four of those calls went to the county he was located in. Most were redirected to Northampton or Warren County. One was even redirected to Colorado.

The goal of the task force, which currently has over 70 people willing to help out, is to educate the public on what they can do and also to help Emergency Services in different counties communicate with each other more easily.

Herzing and other members of the task force have regularly met with local dispatchers and first responders to learn more about the problems they face.

“We got the five counties to come together every month. They’re talking and working out problems. That’s never happened before,” she said.

Recommendations for the public to follow include calling 911 from landlines when possible, saving the alternative numbers for your county in your cell phone (Northampton’s is 252-574-1041), and using reflective house numbers at your driveway entrance to make it easier for first responders to find.

Herzing also said the task force is helping compile a digital map for Lake Gaston to help dispatchers direct first responders to the right place. The process is slow but they’re still working on it, she said.

Being unable to reach the right 911 dispatcher in an emergency is a problem facing rural Americans all over the country, Herzing emphasized, but the Lake Gaston Task Force hopes to spread awareness about this issue until the problem is finally fixed.

Board Chair Charles Tyner thanked Herzing after her presentation. He said they had already been in contact with Warren County about the issue and would be scheduling other meetings soon to address the issue.