Those working in the isolated hub of emergency response, the Columbia County 911 Communications Center, were thrust into the spotlight last week in more ways than one.
The dispatchers and support staff celebrated National Public Safety Telecommunications Week as well as being named Columbia County’s first Team of the Quarter for 2014.
“We’ve got a great team up here,” said sheriff’s office Lt. John Sherman, who oversees the dispatch center.
Sherman nominated his staff for Team of the Quarter for their calm and efficient performance during the height of the ice storm in February, when the number of daily calls exploded exponentially.
“In that three-day period, we worked over 60 hours,” Sherman said.
“There wasn’t down time. They got it done. They did tremendous.”
Dispatchers field an average of about 144 emergency 911 calls and about 600 non-emergency calls daily from citizens.
On Feb. 11, the day the ice storm began, dispatchers fielded 677 calls. That grew to 2,180 calls on the 12th and 2,618 calls on the 13th. Just after 11 p.m. on the 13th, the land phone lines into the 911 dispatch center iced up and went down. Within minutes, calls were rerouted through back-up lines and some dispatchers moved to Evans, where they fielded calls that were put into a computer-aided dispatch system. Dispatchers still in the center in Appling then dispatched emergency responders. It was merely a space bump for dispatchers and staff as they’d trained and practiced for such an event.
The number of calls recorded through the call system Friday was 1,220 and that doesn’t count the 16 hours the main lines were down until about 4 p.m. on Feb. 14.
“The phone lines were down, even though they went down, it was still controlled,” said Training Coordinator Katrina Dent. “The public never knew.”
The majority of the calls during the ice storm were from residents reporting power outages, downed trees and those concerned about “green lightning” and sounds of blowing transformers, Sherman said.
Other than increased call volume, it was business as usual in the windowless upstairs dispatch center at the sheriff’s office in Appling. With forewarning of the storm, supervisors scheduled additional dispatchers and others on-call.
“We planned for it,” said Training Coordinator Tammy Walden.
But just when things began to calm down and extra staff went home to rest, an earthquake shook the county and several returned to handle the roughly 300 additional calls about the quake the evening of Feb. 14.
Though power, landlines and even cell phone service went out or was unreliable at best, the county’s digital radio system that runs through the broadband system, never faltered. That system is comprised of radios used by the sheriff’s office and most county departments.
“The radios were perfect,” Dent said. “We didn’t have any issues with radios. Period.”
Dispatchers Rachel Mobley and her sister, Beth Scruggs, were lucky. They were off during the storm as dispatchers work 4 12-hour shifts, then are off four days along with the Road Patrol deputies they work most often with.
But the job is one that they followed their older brother into and they are comfortable with despite the multi-tasking needed to do the job.
“I do enjoy helping people,” Scruggs said. “I really do, even doing the radio and all that. And the time off.”
Mobley said the job comes with a certain amount of job security, as they’ll always be needed, and a little variety.
“It’s usually different every day,” Mobley said.
Each of the five regularly-scheduled dispatchers juggle five computer monitors, caller information, dispatching responding resources, conducting criminal background and tags checks and all while remaining calm and professional.
“I takes a special person to be able to come into that room and do the job and be successful,” Walden said.
The dispatchers and staff enjoyed a little pampering and attention last week during the national week in their honor. They held an open house on Tuesday for the general public to visit. Visitors are a rare occurrence in the dispatch center.
The staff enjoyed lunches and dinner catered by area restaurants, snacks, treats and even manicures for off-duty staff by Augusta School of Cosmetology.