911 Callers: Know Who, What, Where, When

Aug 29, 2018

It’s a call few are prepared to make: 911, what’s your emergency? 911 operators, however, have challenges of their own when those calls come in. Callers experiencing the rush of adrenalin, fear and a confused idea that the dispatcher answering the phone knows information he or she can’t possibly know sometimes are ill-informed or hard to understand. Getting basic information, like location, is one stumbling block for 911 operators. That struggle can cost time and make the difference between life and death as dispatchers work to provide as much correct information to the appropriate authorities, setting in motion life-saving help.

Toss in large numbers of summer visitors to an area they largely aren’t familiar with, complicated further on Long Beach Island by five of the six communities sharing a ZIP code and even some duplicate addresses. Technology, as good as it is when it works, doesn’t always help. With more people calling from cell phones, dispatchers no longer have immediate knowledge of where someone is calling from and what local police department, first aid or fire station should be sent.

“People awareness is the biggest challenge,” Lt. J. Schevlin, of the Ocean County Sheriff’s Office Administration Division, said recently. “We immediately need to know who, what, where, when. We can’t help until people can give us the location. Then we can send help.”

On LBI, Stephane Rebeck McCormick, a member of the Barnegat Light Volunteer First Aid Squad since June, created an emergency phone script. It was posted on social media Aug. 11, reached more than 7,000 people and was shared more than 40 times, including by the LBI Health Department and Long Beach Township police, who are responsible for covering the Island’s northernmost town.

“Among the overwhelmingly positive and appreciative comments,” McCormick said, “is that each first aid squad make their own version, or that a single script be created for the whole Island.”

Based on that feedback, she said, she set about to create a new script, complete with a divided map of the Island so people could identify their responding agency by location. McCormick spent summers on the Island as a child and was a lifeguard in Harvey Cedars. She now operates a water rescue service in the Midwest and spends most of her time on the Island in the offseason.

She took into consideration how many renters don’t know the address they are staying at by heart and thought the script would help not only them, but the property owners who rent, permanent residents who have a lot of summertime guests or those who just never considered what they need to know before dialing 911.

“It was a lot easier when the calls were coming from homes and businesses,” Elizabeth Glickel, an Ocean County 911 communications shift supervisor, said, echoing Schevlin and McCormick’s concerns of cell phone usage.

When a cell phone caller dials 911 the signal pings off the closest tower and does not provide an accurate address, Schevlin said.

Adding to the confusion, Schevlin said, is new construction going on all around the county, from single-family homes to housing complexes, such as senior communities and condo complexes, as well as businesses. The maps used in the 911 system don’t always have the same information as the people who are looking for help. That’s where the 911 dispatchers benefit from having relationships with local police, emergency responders and firefighters, he said.

“In Little Egg, one time, there was a paper street. We didn’t know it, but the locals did and the one guy knew exactly where to go,” he said, adding, “Everyone thinks technology is the same as what they see on television.”

The Sheriff’s Department answers 911 calls for all 33 municipalities in the county and handled 365,000 such calls in 2017, according to Chris Raimann, the department’s chief public safety telecommunicator. Roughly 300,000 of those calls were legitimate 911 calls, he said.

“Our busiest time,” Raimann said recently, “is from 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., seven days a week. There is a lot going on.”

Not every call deserves to be a 911 call. Dispatchers handle any number of calls about traffic, fireworks being canceled, flooding, or any number of information-seeking calls. Still, in most situations, a cell phone call to report an accident, fire or other emergency has helped get information to authorities more quickly. But there is a downside: multiple callers repeating the same information and tying up the lines for other emergencies.

“We treat every call as an emergency, “Glickel said, noting 911 dispatchers follow a pre-written script, including ones for a variety of medical conditions, to ascertain the most accurate information from the caller. “Most people assume they’re talking to their local police department.”

— Gina G. Scala

ggscala@thesandpaper.net

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