The First of First Responders
A glimpse into the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office Communications Center and the people who save lives one 911 call at a time.
Most people only know what being a 911 operator is like from TV dramatizations. As it turns out, current reality shows, such as ABC’s Emergency Call, are just about spot on for demonstrating the work being done by the 28 telecommunicators serving Brunswick County.
“The new show, Emergency Call, is a true depiction of how 911 works,” says Jonathan Talley, squad one supervisor for Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office.
However, unlike the show, which follows calls in big departments that have separate staff for taking calls and dispatching, at the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office Communications Center, 911 operators are trained to both take calls and dispatch.
“We do it all,” Talley explains. “Our telecommunicators answer the phone, dispatch, update units and call for resources.”
For example, when there is a structure fire, local telecommunicators have to contact the fire marshal’s office, contact the power company to disconnect the power, possibly call the water department to boost pressure and make a lot of other notifications.
“There are a lot of things we do behind the scenes,” Talley explains.
Legislation has been introduced to reclassify the job status of 911 telecommunicators, which is currently seen as a clerical position, to that of first responders. “Sheriff Ingram is fully in support of the change,” says Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Emily Flax.
Calls to 911 can be simple, static police matters such as a stolen lawn mower or they can be evolving, life-threatening emergencies such as a fire or bodily injury. It is up to the telecommunicators to discern the difference, and with a cool head, put the response in motion.
Correct information gathering is paramount to proper response. People with extreme emergencies may think they are needlessly being asked a lot of questions when they call 911, but callers need to be patient while operators go through the mandatory data gathering.
“We have certain information we need,” Talley says. “You may be thinking ‘Why are they asking that?’ but there is a reason why. We want to protect the citizens in Brunswick County, but we also want to protect the people we are sending to a call.”
For example, they don’t want to send EMS to a domestic situation with guns involved before police officers get there.
“Since the caller is on the scene, it is up to them to tell us what they are seeing, and it is up to us to relay that picture to the units in the field,” Talley says. “That way the units know what they are going to need. The information we gather allows the responders to roll when they get on the scene.”
Flax says the frustration from callers is understandable. “People might think that while the dispatchers are asking these questions that nothing is happening,” she says, “but responders are likely already en route.”
Talley explains that emergency units are staged in various zones throughout the county, and as soon as a call comes in, a pre-alert is given.
“As soon as we hear ‘My husbands had a heart attack,’ we’re on the radio advising responders ‘EMD in progress,’ along with the address,” Talley says. “This alerts units of an impending call. Once the call is dropped into waiting in our computer system (CAD), units are already heading to the area.”
The public likely has some misconceptions about how 911 calls work. Many believe that the 911 operators automatically know the location of the phone call, but that is not always correct. Callers must give their location and address. One example is a caller saying an incident has happened on River Road, but both Wilmington and Leland have major streets named River Road, so the city or town location is important.
Others think that since they have a phone issued from another state, if their parents in that same state need emergency help, that calling 911 will alert the proper response team. The 911 system doesn’t work that way.
“Your cell phone works based on where your triangular location is from the towers,” Talley explains. “There are some gray areas. If you are right along the border of another county, they may get our calls and we may get theirs.”
Tools of the Communication Center
Brunswick County 911 telecommunicators work 12-hour shifts, from 5:45 to 5:45, in four rotations or squads. Those shifts have been on rotation, but in early 2021, Brunswick moved to permanent shifts.
“We routinely survey our staff to see if they prefer a rotating or permanent shift,” says Communications Center Director Tom Rogers. “We try to adjust to what suits them better, makes their lives more consistent.”
Operators wear a headset with a mouthpiece and have seven monitors of live data at their stations. It requires a lot of multitasking to listen to the caller and listen to what the emergency units are saying on the radio.
Three of the monitors are used for CAD (Computer Aided Dispatch). One is a phone system that they receive all calls through. Another is a radio screen that has all their different channels divided between the municipalities that they service. They have a paging channel and a tracker tool for places that have certain alarms, like banks. One screen has maps to help them pinpoint the location of a caller. Another screen is used to search data such as phone numbers or locations of a new business. One other screen is AVL (Automatic Vehicle Locate) used to see the medic trucks, fire trucks and law units that are live on CAD.
“We also have a DCI (Division of Criminal Information Network) screen so we can run names, date of birth, car tags, criminal history, anything an officer may need,” Talley says. “We also use it to enter items that are stolen or lost.”
Operations Manager Kim Lewis explains, “Access to the DCI network is tied in with the state and federal FBI. We transmit information statewide or throughout the country about a missing person, wanted persons, stolen vehicles, anything lost or stolen. That’s how we keep track of that data and get that information out to other agencies.”
Aside from seven monitors, each station has two keyboards, two mice and “and a light, so we can see where our mouse is — it gets lost when you have that many screens,” Talley says with a laugh.
The sheriff’s office assigns zones to cover the 1,050 square miles of Brunswick County. The EMS units have a home base, but they move around a lot. It is up to the person dispatching for EMS to keep abreast of where those units are at all times.
Every Call is Unique
“We have a saying that ‘no call is the same,’” Talley says.
He shares that it can be tough to work in the county where you live, because sooner or later you are going to know the person in distress.
“Those are the worst, when you know the person,” he says. “Also calls about children or aging adults. … A lot of times after a call like that we’ll say, ‘Okay, I’m going to step out for a break.’ But there are times when we are so busy, you can’t take a break, you hang up on a tough call, and there is another one waiting.”
911 telecommunicators receive calls for a variety of things the public may not be aware of, such as a person needing an escort into their home to gather belongings because their spouse has filed a 50-B protection order or for help with a volatile child custody exchange.
“You never know what is going to be next,” Talley says. “The other day, it was kind of a slow day, not bad for a Sunday, then two houses were on fire and a third was catching on fire. There is no way you can plan for that.”
Ask when about the busiest time for a 911 operator, and a roomful of staff will laugh and say practically in unison, “When there is a full moon!”
“When there is a full moon is when we have the weirdest, craziest calls,” Talley says. “It never fails.”
The staff has also learned to be cautious when things get too quiet. “Nine times out of 10 if you say, ‘It is quiet in here,’ you are going to be so busy it’s hard to keep up,” Talley says.
The hardest part of the job is that 911 call takers often do not hear the outcome of the situations in which they have been working. It’s as if someone cut out the last chapter of a book.
“That’s the one thing about our job that makes it really hard and is kind of a downside with 911 — a lot of times we don’t get the closure like officers and medics do,” Talley says. “We don’t ever find out whether that patient made it or not. I think that makes the job stressful in itself, starting something but not having an ending, it keeps you hanging and you kind of hold on to those things.”
But the staff of the Communications Center keeps going, one call after another, day in and day out, to save lives in Brunswick County.
How to Help the 911 Operators
Stay calm and be patient. The questions you are being asked are vital.
Know the location of your emergency.
Describe what you see and hear.
If you are in a dangerous situation and cannot talk, text 911.
Prank calls to 911 have a hefty fine and are almost always found out.
Do not hang up on an accidental 911 call, just explain what happened; otherwise, an officer will be dispatched.
Do not hang up until an operator tells you to.
Photography by Emily Flax