There is no panic when the call comes in. An apartment fire in Gainesville. Christmas morning. Families and children in possible danger.
“I need you to get everybody out of your apartment,” Missy Marlowe, a 911 dispatcher at the Hall County Emergency Services Complex, calmly repeats to a frantic voice on the other end of the line. “(Firefighters) are on the way.”
Across the control room, Pamela Taylor is monitoring first responders’ arrival via GPS mapping. She can tell them where fire hydrants are located at the apartment complex and track their response times.
“We help one another,” Taylor, a senior communications official, said of the camaraderie and teamwork inside the dispatch center.
An average of about 500 calls for service from across the county come through here each day, including another few from residents of the apartment complex in trouble.
Nine minutes after the first call was received, a reported kitchen fire is extinguished.
But then a fireman sets off an emergency beacon. Taylor checks in.
There are reports of smoke inhalation to at least one resident. Medical assistance has already been dispatched. And the local chapter of the Red Cross has also been notified of need for its assistance.
Working on holidays has its strains.
But for 911 dispatchers, helping to ensure public safety is a round-the-clock responsibility, no matter the date.
On this Christmas, like Thanksgiving and other traditional family holidays, calls about custody disputes are common.
Marlowe takes one such call this Christmas and tells a worried mother concerned that her ex-husband will not return the children to her home on time that she must take a few steps before law enforcement can intervene.
“It can take an emotional toll on people,” Taylor said of the calls that come in.
The most seasoned dispatchers, however, find ways to cope with and manage the stress of responding to people’s most desperate moments.
Marlowe has worked here for more than five years.
“At this point, I know what to say,” she said, adding that her primary responsibility on a call like an apartment fire is to relay safety information and dispatch fire, law enforcement and medical personnel as quickly as possible.
Marlowe can relay “call notes” so first responders know what to expect.
Nick Shirley has worked here for more than two years. There’s little that can jolt him now.
“This job sands off the edges,” he said.
But one certain type of call still gets to him.
“The calls with kids involved …” he said. Like the custody battles. Those are the hard ones.
The county’s emergency 911 systems have benefited from millions of dollars in public investments in technology upgrades in recent years, which makes the dispatchers even more equipped to respond in an instant to whatever comes over the line — a shooting, a multicar accident, an elderly man in cardiac arrest.
These improvements include updated telephone and radio consoles, new operating software and even a full replacement of air conditioning systems to keep remote connection points from overheating.
Some of the latest gadgetry includes “locaters” on all Gainesville and Hall County firetrucks and ambulances so they can respond to emergencies based on their current proximity rather than being assigned to a call based on where their station is located.
These locaters are now being rolled out to city and county law enforcement patrol, as well.
Dispatchers are also now capable of tracking calls from cellphones to the near-exact location they originate, rather than just the closest pinging cell tower.
“I can get help pretty close,” Taylor said.
Dispatchers are also capable of spotting trends with cellphone data, such as where the highest frequency of calls originate.
For example, during the recent snowstorm, Taylor watched in real-time as the location of calls for service mirrored the direction the storm was traveling as it shut down roads, businesses and schools from one end of the county to the other.
It’s a huge advantage that can shave critical seconds off the response time.
In addition, cellphone data can be useful in developing profiles on frequent callers.
For example, Desiree Danielson, a dispatcher with a few years on the job, said she can identify if a residence is inhabited by someone with a known mental illness, physical handicap or a degenerative brain disease.
“It helps for people who are mentally challenged,” Danielson added, or those who use “nonverbal gestures to communicate.”
Relaying this information to law enforcement and other first responders can be critical in defusing and safely addressing high-intensity emergency situations.
The calls came in steady streams on Christmas morning, with Marlowe, Shirley, Danielson and others taking them as they came, so to speak.
By the lunch hour, all things considered, the holiday had been “relatively calm,” Taylor said.
Of course, it’s a 12-hour shift. Anything could happen.