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Inside Arlington’s Emergency Communications Center

By Katie Pyzyk -

Friday - 11/8/2013, 11:30am  ET

Arlington's Emergency Communications Center“Arlington 911, where is your emergency?”

A call comes in for a seemingly typical vehicle accident on a seemingly typical morning in Arlington. But for the rattled caller, the situation is anything but typical. Enter Lynne Putnam, Emergency Communications Tech III. Putnam has 30 years of experience as a 911 dispatcher, 27 of those spent in Arlington County. She attempts to soothe the caller while transferring the person, because it turns out the accident did not occur in Arlington’s jurisdiction.

“Stay on the line, ma’am, I’m sending you to Park Police.”

Putnam remains on the line with the caller until she can hear the person speaking with a representative for the U.S. Park Police. As with this case, Putnam frequently must make sense out of a caller’s choppy phrases and gather all the facts she can. Often, callers panic and collecting the necessary information becomes a more daunting task than it may first appear.

“I think the part I like best is I’m able to help people in their time of need,” said Putnam. “I like being the calming voice on the other side helping you through your emergency.”

Adding to the difficulty of call taking is the ECC goal to answer each 911 call within 90 seconds. Although not easy to rapidly collect information and then move on to the next call, it’s the ECC employees’ speedy actions that help maintain Arlington County Fire Department’s four minute average response time.

“We’re really proud of that,” said Putnam.

Arlington's Emergency Communications CenterAnswering 911 calls is only part of the job for Putnam and her co-workers at Arlington’s Emergency Communications Center in the Courthouse neighborhood; they also train as police and fire dispatchers. Although it takes about 18 months for the average employee to become fully trained in all three disciplines, it allows for more flexibility and employees can help out wherever needed.

Dispatchers are the voices the public hears when listening to scanners. They deal with calls to the non-emergency police line as well as emergencies called in to 911. Based on the information entered into the system by the 911 call takers, dispatchers determine which response units should head to the scene and how many units should respond. They examine which units are closest and call them to the scene via police and fire radios, explain the emergency as best they can and sometimes give directions.

“The mechanics of the job look easy, answering phones and inputting information,” said Emergency Communications Tech III Sheree Rymenams. “But there’s a lot of judgment involved for each call.”

Dispatchers say occasionally their jobs can be “like that telephone game” in that the details or severity of the original call can end up being nothing like what officers actually find on the scene. With the long hours, multi-tasking and intense situations sometimes comes nervousness, despite having cue cards at each cubicle with prompts for what to ask in a wide variety of situations. After all, emergency responders’ and citizens’ lives are on the line.

“You can’t worry constantly. You just have to do what you’re trained to do, what you’re supposed to do,” said Rymenams. “It’s a team effort.”

Arlington's Emergency Communications CenterDispatchers work in pods next to the 911 call takers, and the employees rotate jobs every four hours. In addition to keeping all of the workers’ skills fresh, the rotation prevents burnout.

“It’s never routine. It’s never the same old, same old. Just when you think you’ve heard it all, something else happens,” said Putnam. “It keeps your brain sharp, keeps you on your toes.”

Up to this point, workers have had to endure 12 hour shifts, from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. or vice versa. They switch from days to nights mid-week. Employees are looking forward to January, when a new policy will result in six different shifts and a shorter work day. Regulations governing mandatory time off will remain the same: Employees cannot work more than 16 hours at a stretch and must have a minimum of eight hours between shifts.

With so much to remember in such intense situations, the ECC workers say their yearly training is beneficial and important. They have a minimum of 16 hours of training every year, more for supervisors. Employees need additional training for each step they advance and for each additional task they are certified in.

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