County shows off 911 center

April 12, 2001

County shows off 911 center

By BOB PARTLOW / Staff Writer, Martinsburg

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - When people call 911, they usually want help in a hurry.

Berkeley County residents with medical or police emergencies can get help quickly from the new state-of-the-art Berkeley County Central Dispatch Center.

The center, at 802 S. Queen St., is a modern workplace of three work stations with two large interconnected monitors, as well as a dizzying array of buttons.

"From the time a person calls to the time we get someone on the way to help you has been reduced from about three minutes to about 20 seconds," said Sheila Hollis, 32, of Gerrardstown, W.Va., who has worked at the center since 1991. She helped show off the system to county officials Thursday.


The old system used old computers and relied heavily on paper logs and often-busy dispatchers trying to relay important information to each other verbally. County officials began upgrading it in 1995.

Now, everything is recorded in meticulous detail on computers.

The county wanted a system to provide better service, but had to convert all the old route numbers and many street addresses and names into one naming system to get it. The conversion created a public uproar, but dispatchers showed officials Thursday how well it works, especially with new computer tools that went online Jan. 1.

Berkeley County Commission President Howard Strauss thought he lived on Stump Road. He argued with Hollis, who said it was changed to Avondale Road. She was right. And when she punched in the road name and Strauss' address, the computer zoomed in immediately on a red dot that marked the spot of his house. It even noted the house was 1,794 feet from Opequon Creek.

"This is like going from the dinosaur age to the computer age," Strauss said. "And it's going to save lives by how quickly the information is pulled up."

The center's 10 employees handled more than 2,600 emergency calls in the first 12 days of the month, and another 2,331 calls on its nonemergency business line.

The equipment can load any previous crime activity that occurred at a property so officers know what they might be facing, Hollis said.

Information such as the presence of dynamite or dogs or past medical history can be loaded into the system - but only if the residence supplies that information in written form, Hollis said.

The system, including address conversion, cost about $600,000 said Berkeley County Central Dispatch Director Mary Kackley. Officials wanted something good, but not costly, she said.

"We did a lot of research," she said.

It takes people to work on the system's high-tech equipment. The center has a hard time keeping its full complement of 11 employees. The pay, which is just under $20,000, the shift work required to run a system that never closes and the stress of the job often drive people elsewhere, she said.

"This is a very high-stress job," said dispatcher Kathy Miller, 25, of Martinsburg, who has worked at the center for three years. "You have to be able to deal with life and death and go on to the next emergency. You have to love it to do it."

Traci Ott, 23, of Jefferson County, has been on the job since February and is still being trained.

"It's exciting. It's nice helping people. It's always different, but very stressful. There's a lot to learn and it's all important," she said.

"It takes a very specialized and very special people to do the job they do," Kackley said.

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