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‘Seconds means lives’ for Wilson 911 call takers

By Caitlin Rickard crickard@lebanondemocrat.com • Dec 17, 2015 at 6:21 PM

Congress has designated the second week in April as “National Public Safety Telecommunicator’s Week,” to honor public safety telecommunication workers throughout the country for their role in providing emergency assistance to those in need.

Every day, Wilson County 911 call takers and WEMA and fire and police dispatchers receive hundreds of calls for assistance with emergencies within the county.

The call takers within Wilson 911 work side-by-side with multiple entities for public safety, such as law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical personnel and others, to help provide quick emergency services 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year. 

Though they are not physically at the scene, call takers for Wilson 911 serve as critical links from citizens to emergency services within area cities and the county.

“We’re unique here in Wilson County in that we’re a call transfer center,” said Wilson County 911 Director J.R. Kelley.

This means, Kelley said, that those taking calls at Wilson 911 are not dispatchers who dispatch people to actual places, but call takers and routers who send callers to the right people they need to be talking to.

All 911 calls made within Wilson County go directly to Wilson 911.

“When the phone is answered, the first thing we ask is where the emergency is because the first priority is where you are and where your needs are,” Kelley said. 

He said they then can confirm locations through the use of satellite mapping and different forms of technology.

“Then we ask what the emergency is,” Kelley said. “And once we determine that, we decide who to transfer the call to.

“The way calls are processed, we’re one of the few places that transfers. There’s no direct dispatch,” Kelley said.

Kelley said medical calls are transferred to the Wilson County Emergency Management Agency, who have their own dispatchers that send medical responders to the scene. Calls regarding law enforcement are sent to different police departments depending on the area the call relates to, whether it’s Lebanon, Watertown, Mt. Juliet or county calls that go to the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office. WEMA also takes fire calls for the entire county.

“Each has its own dispatchers, and they can then dispatch applicable responders,” Kelley said.

Kelley said each different department can also communicate easier because 911 uses a network called “Viper,” and all systems are set up on the same network.

“All calls come into the controller and there’s 14 Viper stations set up all throughout the county,” Kelley said. “So then when we transfer calls to these different departments and places, they can see all that we see on our computers on theirs, too.”

Information includes an aerial view of the location, phone number and more personal information for those signed up with S.A.F.E.R.

In the event something happens to the Wilson 911, calls are rerouted to WEMA.

Those working at Wilson 911 taking these calls are referred to as emergency communications officers, since they aren’t technically dispatchers, but instead call takers that transfer to dispatchers, Kelley said.

“We do page out the Watertown Volunteer Fire Department, and that’s about as close as we get to dispatching,” Kelley said.

Kelley said emergency communications officers must be at least 18 years old with a high school diploma and pass a background check, physical and psychological exam.

They then must receive a minimum of 40 hours on-the-job training before being assigned to a shift. Within six months they must also receive 40 hours of formal textbook training.

There are three shifts of eight hours each.

“We have three stations that can be manned. We only use two, but the third one is just in case,” Kelley said. “So two people are on-call at all times.”

On average, Kelley said they receive about 100 calls a day and more than 35,000 calls a year.

Of the 100 calls a day, he said about one-fourth are usually accidental, which are automatically transferred to law enforcement to handle by policy.

According to Kelley, the busiest time for calls is between 4-8 p.m. and the slowest time is between 1-5 a.m.

“You really never know though,” Kelley said. “Times when we really get slammed are when there are wrecks on the Interstate, because everyone passes and calls 911.”

He said 98 percent of calls they receive are answered within five seconds. 

“Our goal is to answer on the first ring,” Kelley said.

Additionally, he said probably 70 percent of calls are for law enforcement, 25 percent are medical calls and 5 percent are fire calls.

He said multiple agencies are often involved, too.

“If it’s a traffic accident with injuries, someone on the scene is going to need medical help, so we transfer to WEMA but also to law enforcement because they’re going to need both to secure the scene,” Kelley said.

Kelley said Tennessee is the national leader in 911 technology and Wilson County was one of the leaders in the state in implementing new 911 technologies.

“We’re in the process of converting over to next-generation 911 technology,” Kelley said. “In May, all cellphone carriers will be able to provide texts to 911, so we’re preparing for that and in the middle of getting things in place to be able to handle that capability.”

He said the next step would be MMS technology, which would allow 911 to receive pictures from cell phones.

“That’s when it gets interesting,” Kelley said.

Since nearly every district in Tennessee has some amount of dispatch, Kelley said he’d like to see change for Wilson County to have direct dispatch, but it just wasn’t possible for several reasons now.

“I mean, it does take a little time, about 15 seconds for a call for us to get information and then transfer to dispatch,” Kelley said. “There’s a saying, ‘seconds means lives’ and it’s a true statement, and we do all we can to process calls as quickly as possible in the most efficient way.”

To learn more about Wilson County 911, visit wilson911.org.

This is the first in a two-part series honoring public safety telecommunication workers during National Public Safety Telecommunicator’s Week. Part two will be in Friday’s edition.

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