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The other 911

For Pinellas County's emergency services workers, Sept. 11 always was a day to celebrate their profession. Now they must balance the new meaning with the old.

By DAVE SCHEIBER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 6, 2002


For Pinellas County's emergency services workers, Sept. 11 always was a day to celebrate their profession. Now they must balance the new meaning with the old.

CLEARWATER -- Here in the softly lit basement of a government building, phone lines serve as life lines amid the daily mayhem.

The phones ring with a Nintendo-like blip, relaying the latest call for help within the 280 square miles of Pinellas County: A pedestrian struck by a car. An elderly woman having a heart attack. A man falling two stories off scaffolding.

Bad news flows steadily into the county's emergency services communications center. This is 911 central, the eye of the storm in a county filled with about 921,000 residents and 4-million visitors annually.

Of course, now it is the other 911, what we used to think of before the world changed nearly a year ago.

The terrorist attacks last Sept. 11 abruptly altered our primary association of those three familiar digits, from 911 to 9/11. Emergency communications centers, nonetheless, have carried on like everyone else, handling distress calls around the clock and dispatching firefighters and paramedics in anonymity.

Few, if any, do it better than Pinellas County's.

The average time it takes from the receipt of a 911 call in Pinellas to the dispatch of help is 24 seconds. That, along with state-of-the-art equipment and a seamless system of processing calls and information, places the center among the elite in the country.

Last year, officials from the National Emergency Number Association observed the county's 911 operation for several days. "The report looked at 'best practices' and listed Pinellas County as having the most of any communications center in the country," says Charles Freeman, operations manager for the county's department of emergency communications.

For that reason, Pinellas' emergency services operation was to be honored one morning last year, in a comprehensive 911 report to Congress by the National Emergency Number Association and at a Board of County Commissioners meeting.

It was National 911 Day, an event created about five years ago for 911 agencies to honor their own.

But the ceremonies came to a crashing halt. National 911 Day was always held on the most logical date, Sept. 11, and the attacks that morning became the ultimate 911 emergency.

Now, with the first anniversary of the terrorist strikes less than a week away, Pinellas, like counties nationwide, has been grappling with a difficult issue: how to prepare to mourn with the nation, yet celebrate the emergency workers' efforts.

Sept. 11 is still their day on the calendar. And they are determined to keep it that way.

* * *

In contrast to the chaos county emergency operators face, there is a sense of calm in their "com" center.

Every 911 call in Pinellas comes here, yet the staff on duty -- usually in shifts of nine, along with two supervisors -- seems unfazed.

The people speak in voices that are firm, not frazzled. They work in a cozy, 15-by-20-foot space with no windows but bathed in amber lights. Their desks are the latest in ergonomics, rising with the touch of a button if operators wish to stand instead of sit.

They transmit information in the blink of an eye from multiple banks of linked computer screens -- flashing with more colored lights than a Christmas parade -- to emergency service crews, which speed off seconds after contact.

A strong sense of pride unites the operators who run the phones, computers and radios. That is a big reason they believe it's important to continue National 911 Day, despite what happened last year.

Candy Grund, working a recent shift as a dispatcher, feels an especially strong pull to celebrate. Sept. 11 is also her birthday.

"I think I was destined to be a 911 operator," says the St. Petersburg native, who'll turn 35 next week. "I didn't have much time to think about my birthday last year. I worked 12 hours, and we watched all day long on TV. It was terrible." Still, Grund doesn't think the terrorist attacks should put a damper on the tribute for 911 workers: "Why should it?"

Operations manager Freeman says there has been talk nationally about moving National 911 Day to another date. "If you keep it on the same day, it's going to be very hard because of the mourning and remembrance, but if you move it, then have the terrorists won?" he says.

"We don't ever want to forget what happened," he adds, "but we also have to move on."

So Freeman will be part of a 9:45 ceremony the morning of Sept. 11 at Clearwater's Harbour View Center, sponsored by the Pinellas County Fire Chief's Association and emergency service chaplains from the county. Then, back at the office, he and lead communications center supervisor Ruthie Leto will arrange potluck meals with desserts for the staff.

"It's kind of a time to tell them, hey, thanks for being here," Freeman says, "thanks for doing your job."

* * *

Finding the right people to do those jobs -- and keeping them after intensive training -- is a challenge for 911 agencies nationwide.

Freeman and Leto know what it takes to do the job well; each has risen from the ranks of 911 operators. They generally oversee a pool of 50 operators and 10 supervisors but are constantly training new operators, each of whom eventually will handle about 150 calls per day and alternate positions.

They look for individuals with backgrounds in communications or dispatch. Those who apply are invited to a two-day workshop, at which they perform in simulated high-pressure situations.

"We look for quick learners and people who have great retention," Leto says. "But one of the biggest things is you have to be a multitasker. Because you could be on the radio talking, or on the phone, and have a supervisor standing over you telling you something else. And you need to be able to hear them all and pay attention. This is difficult stuff."

Six are selected for the rigorous three-month training. Not all make it.

"If nerves and stress are a part of your nature, you might not be good at this because the least little things can make you skittish," Leto says. "Most people know well in advance if they're not doing well, because we are very upfront in training due to the stress they need to handle."

Those who make the cut work in shifts of either 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. or 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., mixing eight- and 12-hour days. Freeman says that if he can keep promising operators on the job past the first or second year, they generally will stay a long time.

* * *

The first thing you notice about 911 operators is an uncanny ability to carry on a conversation, break smoothly away from it to receive or relay urgent information through headsets, and pick up where they left off.

So interviews go something like this:

Candy Grund: "I've always wanted to help people, and I didn't think I could handle it out in the field. Yes, clear, are they responding? One Bravo engine 44, injured person. . . . One of the hardest parts of the job is that people don't realize we're not a police agency and they demand we get the police out there right now. We try to get the information and try to explain we're not police. One Echo rescue 41 medical alarm, Pinecrest. . . . And then we get calls from people who want to know what time it is, how to cook turkeys or aliens landing. And we politely tell them that's not what we're here for -- if they keep abusing it, there are statutes that can get them in big trouble. One Bravo, engine 27, district 27, air transport upgrade. . . .

Grund is seated near the center of the room, working dispatch on a recent afternoon. She is the one who tells fire and rescue units where to go.

"When you sit here, you can almost hear anything in the room," she says. "That sticks with you, too. I go to restaurants and I'll hear conversations I don't want to hear. It's hard to shut it off."

Her first task as dispatcher is to take the reports from any of the several call-takers on duty, such as 15-year veteran Bob DiPalma. He worked four years as a Spring Hill firefighter and two with Lealman Fire and Rescue. But he was injured 19 years ago in a motorcycle crash and rushed to the hospital by his old Spring Hill rescue partners. He has been in a wheelchair since.

DiPalma points to the several computer screens on his desk. The first screen is where he processes his 911 calls; the second contains the primary fire and rescue units. He can instantly see a list of all engines in the county, with different colors indicating what they are doing.

"For instance, light blue means they're available for a call," he says. "Yellow means they're responding. Red means they're on the scene. However, this red with a reverse block on it means they are also with a patient. The green notes are from SunStar (an ambulance company), and they're linked with us. When I update anything, it updates on 300 computers around Pinellas County."

All call-takers are trained to get essential information as quickly as possible, in a specific order. "It might be that you're telling me your name and spelling it, but I don't need your name, so I'll interrupt just to get right to the point," DiPalma says. "We don't mean to be abrupt, but we have to get the details as quickly as possible."

Step One: Determine what the problem is. If it's police-related, the call is transferred to the police department. Step Two: If it's a fire or medical call, determine the location quickly and clearly.

Average time from 911 call to a unit's arrival on the scene: an impressive 4 minutes, 17 seconds.

An increasing problem is the rise in cell-phone use (222,425 of 554,726 total calls were on cells). Though addresses for land-line phones automatically appear on the computer, cell-phone numbers do not. So if a cell-phone user isn't sure from where he is calling, which happens frequently, that can be trouble.

In Pinellas' high-tech system, the computer alerts the dispatcher while the call-taker is still talking to a caller. "And they're already dispatching while you're talking to this person on the phone," says call-taker Brigett Minnerly, 23, whose husband is a St. Petersburg firefighter. "And while you're still on the phone with them, you're getting a paramedic on the line who will give the prearrival information."

Once dispatcher Grund gets the information from the call, she hits the "enter" button on her computer. Automatically, tones at the fire/rescue station near the incident will go off, printers at those stations will print the relevant data and digital pages will get the details on the call.

Grund also assigns each emergency call to one of several channels, where radio operators such as 29-year-old Buzz Burchill, 23-year-old Mike O'Donnell or 24-year-old Ryan Pauly will take over. Radio operators will listen in on transmissions, and converse, with responding fire and rescue units, typing in updates on the computer on the fly. This helps keep all parties posted on breaking details and creates a log of every incident so departments can review each case. It also provides legal documentation.

Radio operators will juggle up to a half-dozen routine calls on a channel. But Pauly, a former firefighter from State College, Pa., is handling only one right now: a Bayflite rescue. He hears from a district fire chief at the site where the man fell two stories. He radios Bayflite, then passes an update on to the chief, who provides landing details. All the while, Pauly types in notes of the rescue in progress.

The operators look forward to celebrating another year of good work on Sept. 11. But it won't be quite the same.

"It has a different meaning now," says call-taker Debbie Vitalos, 45, a former 911 operator and police officer from Allentown, Pa. "When something like that happens on a special day, it's like losing a parent on your birthday. Still, there was so much spirit of public service involved in what happened last year. And that's what we need to celebrate."

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