As he stands in front of a console looking at multiple computer screens, dispatcher John Hanes gets a call from a woman whose husband is having a medical emergency.
“Repeat that address for verification, please,” he says.
Immediately, one of the computers at his work station pinpoints the address on a map.
“May I have the telephone number from where you’re calling from please,” he asks.
The woman tells the dispatcher that she thinks her husband has had a stroke.
Another computer screen pulls up the emergency medical dispatch protocol.
Hanes continues: “You say he’s 75 years of age? Is he breathing normally? Is he alert?”
As Hanes continues with the protocol, the information already has been channeled and paramedics are on their way.
In the course of a typical 12-hour shift, Hanes said it’s not unusual to answer 250 calls.
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Voters in 2015 approved spending $13 million to overhaul the 911 system as part of projects to be paid for with a special purpose sales tax.
David Kimbrell, Hall County Emergency Management Agency director, said the money went into upgrading the telephone and radio systems, improvements to the computer-aided dispatch to be completed this summer and refurbishment of the dispatch center.
The bulk of the money — a little over $9 million — went into changing over to a recently completed radio system.
The overhaul links seven tower sites and their equipment to connect them throughout the county with the communications center, Kimbrell said. New transmitters and receivers were added, along with heat and air conditioning at the tower sites to keep computers and radios at the right temperature
“With that, we basically doubled the capacity of our radio system,” Kimbrell said. “It allows more conversations at one time.
Kimbrell said every Hall and Gainesville public safety department and all the public works departments are on the same radio system.
“Before we upgraded, you may try to talk on the radio and it would give a busy signal, which meant there were no channels available,” he said. “It didn’t happen that often, but it would happen. Now, we’ve doubled that capacity so that the operators and the officers shouldn’t get a busy signal. That’s critical.”
Jay Parrish, Gainesville Police Department deputy chief, said the upgraded system allows for clear and reliable communication with local law enforcement in Flowery Branch, Braselton and Oakwood, as well as surrounding counties. He said that in a critical situation it could make the difference between life and death.
“It’s money well spent,” Parrish said. “It’s a blessing for us.”
Hanes said the calls are unpredictable.
“If we have a major problem, it bumps up immediately,” Hanes said. “People call in here for all sorts of reasons. Anything you can think of, we’ll receive a phone call dealing with it. An elderly lady called on a Saturday afternoon wanting to know if Georgia won the football game — on the 911 line. You don’t know what you’re going to get until you answer a call.”
Working at the dispatch center in Gainesville has become a little less stressful for Jeff Copeland. He’s been doing the work for almost a quarter century in Hall County. When he started, dispatchers worked in an area without windows they used to call “the dungeon.”
The current dispatch center has windows, and the area was recently refurbished with new consoles, equipment, flooring and air conditioning.
Copeland learned right off the bat in his career that this line of work is not for the faint-hearted.
“It was New Year’s Eve a couple of years after I started,” he said. “I got a call from a lady and her child wasn’t breathing. At that time we didn’t have (medical protocol) or anything like that like we have now. It ended up that the child suffocated and died. They say you always get a call that sticks with you through your career, and that’s the one that’s stuck to me. We take every call seriously, but the kid calls are the ones that stays with you most of the time.”
Kimbrell said the upgrade was the first since moving into the EMA headquarters at 470 Crescent Drive in 2004.
“That room is occupied 24 hours a day, seven days a week by a staff of eight to 12 people around the clock,” Kimbrell said. “It’s a very used room, so for 13 years there was not any major expansion or upgrade or refurbishment.”
Kimbrell said it would have been almost impossible to upgrade using the operating budget.
“It was the first time we attempted to do that in a sales tax and it passed,” he said. “We were very fortunate. If it had not passed, I don’t know what we would have done.”