What's your emergency?
In the event of an emergency in Pocahontas County, who actually answers the phone when you call 911?
Some folks have no idea, others suggest the sheriff's department, while some think the call is routed through the state, but none of these is the case.
The 911 Call Center at the Pocahontas County Office of Emergency Services has provided dispatch services to law enforcement, fire departments, EMS and other agencies for several years now.
"We've been separate from the sheriff's department for six or seven years. People have this misconception that when they dial 911 they're going to get a deputy sheriff," said Shawn Dunbrack, director of Emergency Services. "That's not the case."
The personnel in the call center are the first to know about a situation and make quick decisions as to who will respond.
"We're the heartbeat of the whole county; fire, ambulance, law enforcement," said Alvon Ryder, 911 dispatcher at the call center. "If we're not on target, it goes downhill for everybody. We know whats happening, as it's happening. The information gets to us, then we branch it out to the proper authorities to react or respond, whether it's a minor thing or a catastrophe. We're a separate entity, that deals not only with the sheriff's department, but State Police, DNR, Forest Service, all the fire departments, EMS. There's a lot to it."
A 911 dispatcher's job at the call center is more of a behind-the-scenes role and many people do not know how vital the role of the call center actually is.
"People don't realize what we deal with," said 911 dispatcher Sherry Johnson. "The call comes to us before it goes to anybody else. If we don't do our job right, someone could die."
The rural nature of Pocahontas County directly affects how the dispatchers perform their job.
"We cover 1,000 square miles. It might take anywhere from 10 minutes to 30 minutes before we have a first responder on a scene," said Ryder. "We wish the cell service would improve. It would make our jobs a lot easier and it would help the citizens. The caller has to be our eyes and ears. We have to get all the information through the caller to see what's going on and how we can react."
According to 911 dispatcher Jeffrey Jackson, the call center doesn't have the ability to track cell phone signals like in other parts of the state.
"You can't triangulate a location, there's not enough towers. You need three towers to tell where a call is coming from," said Jackson.
In compliance with a recent state mandate, dispatchers at the call center are undergoing additional Emergency Medical Dispatch training. The Pocahontas County call center is ahead of schedule with the training, and the dispatchers are expected to be certified more than a year ahead of the state's deadline. The additional training will allow dispatchers to provide more advanced life-saving knowledge when a call comes in.
According to Jackson, if someone is having a heart attack, delivering a baby or needs CPR, the call center can give instructions over the phone on what to do.
"You may have never done it in your life, but using guide cards we can instruct you on what to do until EMS arrives," said Jackson.
According to Jackson, the call center made some changes about a month ago to allow dispatchers more flexibility when answering a call. Now there are three dispatchers in the call center, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year, so dispatchers can devote more time to each emergency call.
"Sometimes you're on the phone with the caller until the ambulance gets on scene," he said. "It could be anywhere from 20-30 minutes before the responders even get to the station, then another say twenty minutes to be on scene, you could easily be on the phone for an hour before the ambulance gets there."
Dispatchers recently started using new Computer Aided Dispatch software to help save time during a call. The dispatcher asks the caller a series of questions about the nature of the incident, then confirms the phone number and address, and the CAD system automatically lets the dispatcher know who is closest to the scene and who should be dispatched.
"With our CAD system, it tells us who to contact. It's real helpful, the technology is just amazing," said Johnson.
Johnson has been working at the call center for 34 years and remembers when dispatchers had only a single rotary phone, a sheriff and a deputy.
According to Johnson, the skills required to be a dispatcher vary and include knowing local geography, how to read maps and the ability to maintain a level head during an emergency.
"It's a mental stress. In a panic situation, some callers can't remember where they live for example," she said.
The relatively small population in Pocahontas County can make it even harder for the dispatchers.
"There are difficult calls, especially if you have anything relating to automobile accidents with a death, or it's somebody you know, a friend or neighbor," said Ryder. "Your skills kick in, what can I do to save this person's life? Get the first responders on scene in the quickest amount of time. You deal it with, deal with it to the best of your ability. That's why this person called, they need help."
Jackson stresses that the dispatchers are here to help, whatever the situation.
"A lot of folks don't realize what we're here for. Don't hesitate to call. Don't call your neighbor or the firehouse, call 911. We're not too busy to take your call," said Jackson.