What it’s like to answer the most recognizable phone number in the world
Rush hour is just kicking into gear, and there’s been a wreck on Cosgrove Avenue.
The 911 call comes into the county’s Consolidated Dispatch Center and Stephanie Fox answers by the second ring.
“What is the nature of your emergency?” she asks.
Fox hears “traffic accident” and clicks a box on one of the seven computer screens in front of her. The system tells her the call is coming from Cosgrove and she has the cursor ready as she asks: “What is your exact location?”
She types “Azalea” in front of Cosgrove.
It’s just a fender bender, but Fox goes through a long list of questions — Is anyone hurt? Are you in a safe location?
These questions appear on a screen, but Fox knows them by heart. And 30 seconds in, Fox tells the man — one of the drivers — help is on the way.
Actually, help was on the way the second she finished typing “Azalea.”
That’s when Fox sent the initial report to a dispatcher, who in turn radioed North Charleston police.
By the time the man learned this, a patrol car was rolling.
Cries for help
Charleston County’s 911 center has been under fire since the news broke that one of its call-takers, Dezerea Shelton, is accused of failing to report 45 calls to dispatchers over an eight-month period.
She would answer and route dozens of calls in a day and then, once every couple of weeks, just wouldn’t send one to dispatch. It’s bizarre.
Shelton is facing charges of misconduct and obstruction of justice, and her colleagues have been left to take the fallout. And, frankly, these folks have enough on them without this.
Handling emergency calls is harder than the work most people do. For 12-hour shifts, dispatchers and call-takers sit in a dark room illuminated by dozens of computer and television screens and answer cries for help.
They don’t have personal pictures on their desks, and they can’t carry in their iPhone, iPad, or pretty much anything with an on-off switch.
Instead they watch screens that show emergency vehicles on call, two that monitor emergency radio frequencies, one that shows maps of the county, another that lists routed calls, one that shows calls in progress and the one in front of them, where they fill out forms on the calls they are taking.
And they take calls — sometimes more than 100 in a shift. They are the people who answer the most recognizable phone number in the world.
Sure, there are cranks. Some people actually just want to talk. And now and then people call asking for a phone number — because they couldn’t find it anywhere else.
But quite often, the people who take 911 calls have to manage dangerous situations, knowing that if they do anything wrong, someone could get hurt, or die.
Jason Scott has been a 911 call-taker for two years, seven months and nine days now. In that time, he has calmed people in the middle of a home invasion, directed someone on how to give CPR to a dying man — and even delivered two babies by phone.
It’s a stressful, often thankless job.
“This is not the kind of job you stick around for if you don’t like it,” Scott says.
And that’s why everyone at the Consolidated Dispatch Center is having such a hard time understanding why Shelton allegedly did what she did.
A better system
Fox went through her 18 weeks of training with Shelton.
She says the entire incident has been disheartening. But they are a family, and they’ve pulled together. Their biggest regret is that more people don’t understand what they do.
These folks are very much like police officers, firefighters or EMS personnel — doing important work for modest pay.
They now have the same problem as other emergency workers. One cop does something wrong, and the entire force is called into question. Apparently it’s the same with 911.
These call-takers and dispatchers understand this. They are determined to watch each other, back each other up, and make sure it doesn’t happen again. As a result of Shelton’s actions, the county has taken steps to make the system better.
It’s the proper response. But then, response is what these folks are all about.
That news should give people some comfort. But they should also feel confident that when they call 911, the folks at the dispatch center understand the stakes.
“There is no margin for error,” Scott says.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org