911 call taker uses 'tapping' to locate man who couldn't speak

Jon Lewis answers calls Thursday at Charleston County's Consolidated 911 Center in North Charleston. Lewis helped a man who was unable to talk during the call by using a tap method to answer questions that lead authorities to his location. Buy this photo

Jon Lewis has picked up the phone hundreds of times at Charleston County's Consolidated 911 Center, only to hear background noise and find nobody on the line.

In such cases, he asks the caller to tap the phone if he or she needs help, just in case the caller is unable to speak. If Lewis doesn't hear a tap, he makes a follow-up call to the number to make sure it was a mistake, not an emergency call.

But in the year he has worked as a call taker, nobody had responded with a tap. That is until one Monday morning this month.

"This time I could hear cars (in the background)," Lewis said. "This time I heard someone tap twice."

Charleston County spokesman Shawn Smetana said employees who answer 911 calls receive extensive training, which includes learning to use the tapping system when they can't hear a caller on the line. But nobody at the center recalls having to use the method in recent years.

Lewis said the call for which he had to tap came from a man calling from a "phase two" cellphone. That type of phone allowed Lewis and the nearby dispatcher to narrow down the caller's location to about a one-block radius along Rivers Avenue in North Charleston, near the Northwoods Mall.

A "phase one" cellphone would have identified only the tower from which the call was transmitted.

That would have made it more difficult to find the man, Lewis said. "Thankfully, it was a phase two."

Lewis said he works closely with a dispatcher, who sent police officers to the area while Lewis launched into a series of questions hoping to narrow the caller's location.

He instructed the caller to tap once if the answer to a question was "yes" and twice if the answer was "no."

He learned the caller was a man who needed medical help, and that he was near a business.

Then he told the man he was going to recite the letters in the alphabet. The man was to tap when Lewis said the letter that corresponded to the first letter in the name of the business.

He tapped when Lewis said "W."

Lewis was looking at a map on his computer screen of the one-block area where the call was coming from. He saw a Wells Fargo bank. He asked the man if he was near the bank. The caller tapped once, indicating that was the correct location.

He also learned what the man was wearing, and that he was in the bushes near the bank.

That's where North Charleston police officers found him.

"I was in shock, but it was really cool," Lewis said of his reaction after police officers found the man.

According to a Feb. 10 incident report, the man was "conscious but not alert." He was lying on the ground, face down, with his phone near his right hand. Charleston County EMS treated him at the scene.

Lewis didn't know what had happened to the man. His job ends when he's certain help has arrived on the scene. "That's one of the emotionally unsatisfying parts of the job," he said.

But on the other hand, he said, it's important for call takers to be able to leave work at work. "There's a lot of people to worry about."

Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.

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