During an emergency, he is your link to help

July 22, 2002|by CAILIN MCGOUGH

In the basement of 33 W. Washington St., Keith Bowen sits behind a control panel, two computer screens to his right and a glowing map of the city of Hagerstown to his left. As he types he talks into a headset, relaying information to the hospital before reaching to answer an incoming call.

Bowen, 46, an emergency communications specialist at Washington County Fire and Rescue Communications, said the controls really aren't that complicated.

"There are a lot of lights and things, but it looks a lot more intrusive than it actually is," Bowen, of Boonsboro, said.

The more difficult part of answering 911 calls is trying to help callers, many of whom are frustrated and irate, Bowen said.


"You never know what the problem's going to be," Bowen said. "You will have someone call in and have a cat in a tree and think that's a dire need."

Other times, callers are so upset and excited they can't even say their own address. When this happens, you have to get control of the caller and calm them down in order to get information you need, Bowen said.

"You have to have a very objective view, which means you can't get involved," Bowen said. "It gets a little intense sometimes, especially if children are involved, but if you get involved you won't do the patient any good."

In May, Bowen was honored as Washington County's dispatcher of the year at the first annual EMS Awards Banquet.

"My understanding is that it was voted on by field providers and officers from departments - the people on the other end of the call," Bowen said. "It means more to me coming from them than anybody else."

A lifelong interest in radio and electronics led him to the field of emergency dispatch, Bowen said.

After graduating from South Hagerstown High School, Bowen worked at Doubleday Printing in Smithsburg before moving to Florida. Then, while working in the utilities department at Disney World, Bowen learned about the radio system used in Disney's emergency control center.

When his community established a public safety department, Bowen took a part-time position as a dispatcher.

With encouragement from deputies in the department, Bowen soon left his job at Disney to become a full-time dispatcher with the Osceola County Sheriff's Department.

At the time, Bowen also volunteered at the Poinciana Volunteer Fire Department in Polk County, Fla., serving as chief for two years.

After moving back to the Hagerstown area, Bowen worked part-time at the dispatch center for a year before starting full time in November 1988.

Bowen, who works 40 hours a week at the center, said he rides his motorcycle and spends time with his wife and daughter when he is off duty.

Dave Pheil, 52, who has worked as an emergency communications specialist since the center opened 27 years ago, said Bowen is good with callers.

"He can talk to people and find out what they need, and he's knowledgeable about our equipment and equipment in the field, so when you put that all together it solves any problem you would run into," Pheil said.

Bowen also has a sense of humor.

Even after fielding thousands of calls, Bowen said whenever he thinks he's heard it all, he will get a call and it's something new.

He recalled a Boonsboro woman who, during the Northern Lights, called to report a UFO sighting.

"We're like a clearinghouse for problems. When they don't know who else to call, they call 911," he said.

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