News : 911 Workers Provide Reassuring Voices for Callers in Trouble
Greensboro, NC, USA, May 4, 2015 -- Each year, Guilford County residents place more than 300,000 calls to 911.
About 90 people, housed in the basement of a nondescript building near the Greensboro Coliseum, are tasked with responding to every one of them.
Working for Guilford Metro 911, they keep callers calm. They send ambulances and firetrucks. They give help before help arrives.
And they do it all while grappling with long hours, soaring stress levels and high turnover rates among fellow responders — problems common to the 911 field nationwide.
Guilford 911 now can receive text messages
Guilford Metro 911 can now receive text messages through four major wireless carriers: AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile.
"This is just an industry where you’re dealing with people at their worst times," said Richard Taylor, who is executive director of the North Carolina 911 Board that allocates funding for 911 call centers across the state.
Guilford Metro 911 has operated at less than its capacity for the past four years, according to Melanie Neal, acting director. In 2014, the center employed 85 communications specialists, compared to the allowable maximum of 93. Eleven employees resigned or were fired that year, representing a turnover rate of 12 percent — nearly 4 percent more than the year before.
911 turnover rate
"We have rarely, if ever, been at authorized strength since I’ve been here," Neal said. "We need the people. We just can’t retain them ... and stress is a major factor."
Including outgoing calls and non-emergency requests, Guilford Metro employees completed 715,858 phone transactions in 2014. That number has decreased steadily since 2012, when phone transactions totaled 801,753. The number of 911 calls also has decreased, falling from 390,434 in 2012 to 321,640 last year.
The downward trend is the opposite of what’s happening statewide, according to data from the 911 board. In March, for example, call centers in North Carolina responded to 618,392 calls, up 2 percent from March 2014.
But the decrease hasn’t meant a smaller workload for Guilford Metro. employees at the call center work 12-hour shifts, and while there are slow periods, the majority of each day is hectic.
Compartmentalizing is important. So is not taking anything to heart.
"You get called names, all sorts of things, and I just never take it personally," said Kimberly Burkley, a master telecommunicator with eight years of experience at Guilford Metro. "I think it’s always stressful, but I think you just get used to the stress. It’s just something you have to deal with when you come in here."
For Matt Wall, who previously worked as a volunteer firefighter and an EMS responder, it was a wish to experience the industry from the other end of the phone.
"It’s multidimensional," Wall said. "We go from talking to elderly residents about a phone scam to responding to a burglar alarm to giving CPR instructions to a house fire. You really just don’t know what to expect when you come in and start taking calls."
Some calls are harder than others. Many Guilford Metro staff members have been the last voice that a caller hears, Wall said.
The resolution of other 911 calls is less clear, leaving dispatchers to wonder about the outcome.
"When we hang up the phone, the call ends for us," said Kasi Edwards, who’s been with Guilford Metro 911 for about 15 months. "We don’t get to see the end result, and you do have those stressful calls that never leave you."
Occasionally, she said, EMS responders will add notes to the call log, allowing dispatchers to read about what happened.
If a call is particularly haunting, there’s a way for 911 employees to contact the first responders to get closure, but that requires basic information, such as an address or a name. Sometimes, that’s not available.
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"My very first CPR call came when I wasn’t even out of training," Edwards said. "It was an elderly man and his wife, and the man went from conscious and breathing to labored breathing to unconscious and not breathing — all in minutes."
The man was in a wheelchair, and the woman was unable to move him to the floor to perform CPR.
"But in the background, you could hear her giving her all to try to breathe for him," she said. "I didn’t catch the address. And I don’t know if he lived or died."
In those situations, all you can do is leave it behind when you go home, she said.
"We are here half of our waking lives and it can overrun your life if you let it," Edwards said. "You just have to be able to shut off that part of your brain."
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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About Guilford Metro 911:
Guilford Metro 9-1-1 (GM 9-1-1) provides a single point of contact (centralized location) for all Guilford County and Greensboro residents to make one call to one center and receive one source for all public safety response needs.
Published: Wednesday, May 6, 2015
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