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Ask Anything: 10 questions with Wake County 911 Center Director Barry Furey

Wake County 911 Center Director Barry Furey answers your questions about dispatchers' stress levels, crazy calls and much more.

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Wake County 911 Center Director Barry Furey
What training is necessary for dispatchers and how do they deal with such a stressful job? – Debbie P., Fuquay-Varina

That’s a great question, Debbie, and touches on subjects that are often overlooked. Most people don’t realize the level of training required or the level of stress experienced. Because neither the state nor federal government prescribes a curriculum, local agencies pretty much determine their own requirements.

In our case, this consists of a three-month formal academy where students learn the varying procedures of the more-than-40 agencies that we service and receive simulated experience in handling telephone calls and radio transmissions, and in utilizing the Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system.

This is followed by another six months of practical training on the 9-1-1 center floor under the direct supervision of a training officer. Here they get to handle real emergencies with an experienced telecommunicator at their side. In-service training is also provided at regular intervals for the entire staff in order to keep up with changing technology and procedures. And, since no day is ever like the next, our staff never really stops learning.

As for managing stress, folks deal with it in many of the same ways that everyone else does, with the exception of knowing that they are in a position where one mistake could cost a life and where almost everything they say and do is recorded. Family, friends, and faith play a big part, and there’s an Employee Assistance Program to offer more formalized help. Sadly, not everyone can or does cope; nationally 9-1-1 centers lose about one out of five of their employees every year.

What in your experience has been the craziest or oddest call that came in to the center, whether emergency assistance was actually needed or not? – Andrew, Clayton

Andrew – In my soon-to-be 40 years of experience in pubic safety, I have come to realize that those in our profession get to see a side of your neighborhood and your neighbors that most people don’t get to see. However, since WRAL wishes to maintain a “G” rating on their Web site, quite a few of the craziest tales can’t be shared here.

There are two particular stories that come to mind, though, although both come from 9-1-1 centers that I have managed in the past. In one case, an elderly lady who frequently called about a variety of real and imagined problems advised one evening that there was a Martian on her front porch. Because we are trained to “err on the side of caution,” an officer was dispatched. Arriving on the scene, he discovered a teenager who had been inhaling fluorescent paint which left a day-glow green ring around his face. The “little green man” was taken away and the problem solved.

In another case, a telecommunicator redialed the number of a 9-1-1 hang-up call to make sure that there were no problems at the address. When the phone was answered by a child, he asked that an adult come to the line. The handset was put down, and several seconds later the same child – now speaking in the deepest voice a 9 or 10 year old could muster – returned to the line. When asked who he was, the boy in all seriousness replied, “This is an adult.” Eventually, everything turned out fine, but you really never know what the next call can bring.

How much of an emergency should something be to warrant a call to 911? I know major emergencies (poisoning, robbery, car accident) should be reported but what about situations like noisy neighbors, abandoned car, cat stuck in a tree, etc.? – John Rowe, Cary

Thanks for the question. I suppose the answer really depends on who you ask, because even in the industry there is not universal agreement on this subject. From my point of view, I would rather have someone call 9-1-1 than a non-emergency number anytime they had a doubt as to the seriousness of the situation.

The noisy neighbors you mentioned could easily turn into a domestic dispute, and sometimes it’s better to be safe than sorry. However, that being said, there are clearly conditions – such as illegally parked cars and vandalism – that are not life-threatening. In Raleigh, these can be reported to 919-831-6311. That number is answered at our center, but on a lower priority basis than the 9-1-1 lines. There are similar non-emergency numbers for other agencies in the region.

Our biggest problem, quite frankly, John, comes from calls that should not be made at all. In this category, I would include requests for information about school closings, road conditions and power failures. We even get calls from people complaining that they are stuck in traffic! None of these will elicit a public safety response and do nothing more than tie up our call takers and delay our service to citizens who have true emergencies.

When a call comes in and the dispatcher is asking questions: "Is your mom breathing?" "Does she have anything in her mouth?" etc., is another dispatcher actually sending emergency crews to the scene? I have often wondered, because it seems a lot of time is being used up discerning what's going on before anyone is actually sent. I hope as soon as the words "911, what's the location of your emergency?" is answered, help is on the way while more information is being gathered. – Lane Miller, Raleigh

Lane, your assumption is correct. On medical emergencies, and in fact on any type of life-threatening call, help is normally on the way as soon as the basic information about the location and type of emergency is gathered. While follow-up questions are being asked, other telecommunicators are busy dispatching units. In fact, during the past year all ambulances were outfitted with satellite-based Automatic Vehicle Location devices, so that we could more quickly find the truly closest unit and further expedite the response process.

I can understand that to someone having an emergency, many of our questions may seem unrelated to the problem – or sometimes downright dumb – but they are all designed to get the appropriate help to where it is needed. As one of only ninety Accredited Centers of Excellence worldwide, Raleigh-Wake Emergency Communications has undergone independent review to ensure compliance with key competencies. All of our personnel are certified in Emergency Medical Dispatch, and work from a pre-scripted list of physician-approved questions and advisories on all calls involving illness or injury. Every step has its purpose.

As the only CALEA (Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies) accredited center in North Carolina we have undergone a similar review on the police side of the house as well. We also routinely ask for information like the description of vehicles on accident calls, for example – not to check out your ride – but to make sure that nothing slips through the cracks. On a rainy afternoon on I-40 there can be several incidents along the same stretch of road, and we want to be sure that no one is left without help. A red 18-wheeler and a green Mini-Cooper are obviously not the same.

What is the difference between 911 services and "E-911" services offered by alternative phone systems? Are all the E-911 services the same? What should a consumer look out for? – Mark, Raleigh

In the truest sense, Mark, 9 -1-1 is simply the emergency number. It provides nothing more than toll-free public access to emergency services. The letter “E” stands for “Enhanced” 9-1-1, which provides automatic number and location information. While there are pluses and minuses to all forms of technology, I will limit my comments strictly to their interface to 9-1-1.

In this regard, many consider that conventional telephone service provides the most straightforward means of calling 9-1-1 because the telephone is tied to a fixed address which never moves. The telephone company also utilizes its own power, which is separate from the commercial grid. So even if your lights are out, your telephone will normally still work. Wireless services obviously do not rely on your electricity, but they are by nature mobile.

It can take 20 seconds or more for us to receive caller location information, and while normally accurate, it is not necessarily pin-point and doesn’t provide elevation information. In other words, if you’re calling from a downtown area we don’t know what floor you’re on or maybe even what building you’re in without asking. VoIP – Voice over Internet Protocol – is the newest and fastest-growing entry into the telephone market. There are more than 700 providers operating nationwide, and some of them require customers to register their own 9-1-1 location. If you make a mistake in this process, or move without changing this information, an incorrect address will be displayed at the 911 center.

Also, anything to do with the Internet normally involves a modem that uses commercial electric power. If the lights are out in your neighborhood, so is your phone unless you’ve provided back-up. Of course, this is true for cordless telephones on conventional systems as well, which is why we advise citizens with standard telephone service to keep at least one corded phone in the house. Regardless of your choice, any of these methods will connect you with 9-1-1, and neither the City of Raleigh nor I endorse any specific method or vendor. In the future, I suspect, you will have even more options from which to choose.

Hi Barry, I appreciate you taking part in WRAL's Q&A series. I've interacted with your Center many times and they have always been professional and thorough. Can you explain some of the difficulties and plans to adapt to the emerging technologies such as text messaging and the reduction in landlines as it relates to managing a 911 Center? – Don Hamilton, Cary

Don, thanks for the kind words. As you indicated, there are a number of technical issues that pose challenges both now and in the future. The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) has adopted the slogan “Emergency help anytime, anywhere, any device.” This is quite a task.

While we as 9-1-1 center administrators work to upgrade our internal equipment to accept text messaging, data, and videos along with voice, we must also focus on upgrading the telephone network itself which was designed over 40 years ago in an analog world. There are many pieces of this puzzle that must fit perfectly in order to provide a seamless pathway to the future, and right now features that people use with their families and friends are incompatible with our current generation of 9-1-1.

Another huge unknown is the fact that the “Next Generation 9-1-1,” to which we are all moving, has yet to be adequately defined. Since so much of our future workload may come from devices that have yet to be invented, in many cases we are making our best estimates as to where consumer electronics are headed.

I believe that the recent surveys conducted by the State 9-1-1 Board as well as ongoing discussions between local agencies have been positive steps in defining this path. What we need to be sure of is to provide for an open architecture that will be less exclusive than our former short-sighted definitions of what a “telephone” actually is. Calling for help from your GameBoy or Xbox? It fits NENA’s definition. Now all we have to do is make it work and find a way to pay for it.

What age should you teach your child about how to use 911? Are there any speakers that go to Wake County schools and teach students about the 911 system? – Jill, Cary

Great question, Jill. I think that – like many other skills – the age to talk about calling 9-1-1 can vary from child to child. Kids as young as 2 or 3 have successfully used the emergency number. As long as the child can learn his or her address, telephone number, and know right from wrong, they are a good candidate. And, once you teach them the basics, make sure that they know how to operate – and can access – any phone that they might have to utilize.

Mom’s cell phone will work differently than grandma’s wall phone, and if they need a stool to reach the wall phone in the kitchen, a safer alternative may be to condition them to use the one on the bedroom nightstand that’s right at their height. Every year we receive hundreds of 9-1-1 calls from children, and recognize the best with our “I Knew What To Do” award. I hope your family never needs to use it, but it’s almost never too early to start teaching them the basics.

While many of our public safety agencies touch upon 9-1-1 in their school presentations, there is no formally-organized program of specialized speakers. We’re always happy, though, to work with any school or organization that wants to know more about 9-1-1. Anyone interested in obtaining further information can contact our Training Supervisor Angie Schulz at angie.schulz@ci.raleigh.nc.us. Please keep in mind that, like everyone else, our participation is subject to fiscal and staffing limitations.

I come from a big city that was divided into townships and each township had their own EMS/Police system. It was a seven-digit number, not 911. It took one ring and they answered and were there within 2-4 minutes of a call. Since moving to Raleigh, it takes five to six rings for someone to answer 911 (sometimes people don't have five to six rings to wait) and I've had to call back to ask if you guys were coming! What is the reason for this and what is being done, if anything, to improve on it for the safety of citizens? Thanks. – Tiffany Driggers, Coats

Tiffany, I’d like to address your question in two parts. First off, situations like that to which you were accustomed are now becoming fewer and farther between. The duplication of technology and personnel from one small community to the next has become cost-prohibitive for most communities; and it fragments public safety response. Even more troubling is the loss of functionality created through the use of seven digit numbers as opposed to 9-1-1.

Citizens must remember or look up the number, which obviously wastes time during a true emergency, and critical information about your location is not automatically transmitted. However, I suspect that your true concern rests with the time it has taken your 9-1-1 calls to be answered. Let me address that directly. The six rings you describe is well above our normal, but certainly not beyond the range of reason.

Here’s why. Every year we receive more 9-1-1 calls than the last. We also receive an increasing percentage of non-English language calls, emergency medical calls, and wireless calls. I mention these specifically, because in addition to increasing our overall numbers they drastically increase our time on the telephone. Non-English speaking calls involve connecting a translator and repeating every question and answer. Emergency medical calls require significant staff involvement to ensure that they are done correctly. We obviously can’t hang up in the middle of CPR instructions to take another call. And cell phone calls take extra time to properly determine an address.

Cell phones also add the phenomenon of “call clustering” or multiple simultaneous calls for the same incident. It’s not unusual for dozens of people to dial 9-1-1 within seconds of each other when they spot an accident, crime, or fire. This can happen several times a day, and I know of no 9-1-1 center in the country that has enough telephones or people to maintain a one or two ring average during these periods because every call has to be handled and screened.

Like you, we are concerned about the times when our ability to almost immediately answer calls drops below average, and because of that the City Manager, Mayor, and City Council have been very supportive of adding staff to the 9-1-1 center during the past two years. While fiscal constraints prevent that from occurring in the next budget cycle, we are starting to see the positive effects of these new-hires as they are trained and released.

Our staff has also implemented innovative ways to reduce non-emergency calls to our center through online applications for our user agencies. This is also helping to free up people to more quickly answer 9-1-1. However, we can’t make all the improvements alone. We need the public’s assistance in eliminating those types of unwarranted calls that I discussed earlier with John. If you see emergency vehicles on the scene, or people standing at an accident site on their cell phones, it’s a pretty good bet that we have the call. If your lights are out, call the power company. By saving 9-1-1 for the times when law enforcement, fire, or medical response is needed, citizens can actually help save a life.

A year or two ago, I was in a situation where a man ran a stop sign in front of me in a Target parking lot and I honked my horn. He went into a rage and followed me to my parking space and tried to get into my truck, telling me that he was going to kill me. I dialed 911 and told the operator what my situation was. She said that because I was at Target, I would have to find their security personnel and tell them. She then hung up the phone on me, as he was still trying to get in. I thought the operator's actions were inappropriate given the situation. Who should I have called to complain? – Sarah, Apex

Sarah, I’m truly sorry that you did not get the service you deserved. Last year our personnel received and generated more than 1 million telephone calls, dispatched over 400,000 incidents, and made almost 3 million radio transmissions. In the course of these activities they received a remarkably small number of complaints.

However, when things don’t go right we certainly want to get to the bottom of it as quickly as possible. Because 9-1-1 calls in Wake County can be received directly by our agency, Cary, Holly Springs, or N.C. State, I am unsure of where your call was handled without further information.

If you have any problems or concerns in the future, I’d encourage you to call 919-829-1911 directly and ask for a supervisor. The appropriate telephone numbers for the other agencies mentioned are available on their respective Web sites, and I can assure you that we all take citizen safety and satisfaction seriously.

Right now, we’d love to talk to you directly and find out more about your past concern. Please feel free to contact Deputy Director Walt Fuller at 919-996-5012. I can be reached at 919-996-5030. Our names, numbers, and email addresses are also on the City of Raleigh Web site, as is a feedback survey. From the main page, select “departments,” then “emergency communications” to navigate to our listings.

I am a responder in the Raleigh area. I would like to know why the Emergency 911 Telecommunicators that take the frantic calls, multi-task and keep order during a chaotic incident are not considered "public safety personnel." I would like to see the employees represented well within the local government system. The call takers and telecommunicators are the true first responders and should be recognized for all that they do. – Chris Mills, Raleigh

Chris, thanks for the kind words. While the City of Raleigh does recognize our personnel as being members of the public safety family and is a terrific place to work, this recognition does not carry over into other areas such as the retirement system. What you are talking about is actually an issue on the state and national rather than the local level.

I don’t think anyone doubts that first responders in the field subject themselves to a significant amount of danger that is not present in the dispatch center and that they deserve all of the credit in the world for the jobs they do. However, any investment made in emergency response never reaches its potential without commensurate support for dispatchers and call takers.

Part of the problem rests with the ever-changing and emerging role of dispatchers and the dispatch center. Firefighters and law enforcement officers have been around since Roman times, but the widespread use of dedicated communications personnel took hold half a century ago, at most. For years, working “the desk” was assigned as light duty or even as punishment. Some of that stigma has failed to disappear.

When I first started in this business we took a no-frills approach. We got the basic information, wrote it down and sent somebody. A systems upgrade meant that we got a new pen; there were no computers. Now, through concepts such as Emergency Medical Dispatch, Community Policing, and even the National Incident Management System, a significant amount of responsibility once handled in the field now rests inside the center. Additionally, mastering the technology alone requires a great deal of effort.

I don’t think that everyone realizes or appreciates how complex the job has become, nor do I think that we have done a good job in educating those who don’t. A few years back, someone coined the term “first first responder” to describe the importance of the work performed by telecommunicators. Hopefully someday this importance can be fully recognized and rewarded. I think this would go a long way towards easing the nationwide rate of attrition, and helping more qualified and dedicated candidates consider 9-1-1 as a lifetime career.

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