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Dispatch center serves national parks

February 10, 2003|by SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

Whether you are reporting vandalism at Antietam National Battlefield, a crime at Manassas National Battlefield Park or a medical emergency at Catoctin Mountain Park, the emergency call will be handled at a dispatch center along Dual Highway in Hagerstown.

The 4-year-old National Capital Region Communications Center, in the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal headquarters building, handles about 35,000 calls a year, communications manager William R. Orlando said.

Many people using the parks don't know a dispatch center serving parks in multiple states exists in Hagerstown, he said.

The National Park Service, which funds the center at $750,000 a year, has notices at parks asking people to report crimes by calling the dispatch center at 1-866-677-6677.

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While people are calling, not all of them are reporting crimes and emergencies, Orlando said.

At least once a day someone calls asking to reserve a campsite and the dispatchers provide them with the phone number of the park, he said.

The center is the first of its kind for the National Park Service, Orlando said. Others are being considered.

Previously, some of the parks, including the C&O Canal, had a dispatch system part of the time and used other government agencies' dispatch systems the rest of the time, he said. As a result, when rangers would call law enforcement agencies for information on a drivers' record, for example, they would sometimes receive low priority.

Now callers get a faster response because the center is only for the parks and is more efficient, Orlando said. The center has about 10 employees and is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

By focusing exclusively on the parks, the central dispatch center increases the safety of the 49 rangers working at the seven parks, Orlando said.

The center was partially prompted by increased concern about rangers' safety after several were hurt at U.S. parks in 1999, he said.

In addition to responding faster to calls from rangers, dispatchers will check periodically with rangers to make sure they are all right, Orlando said.

Dispatchers Blair Williamson and Manuel Delafuente said one of the hardest parts of their jobs is the moments of "radio silence" when they ask a ranger to check in, using a radio or cell phone, and get no immediate response.

Orlando, who worked as a ranger at Harpers Ferry, C&O and Antietam, said he understands the concern.

"It is nice to have someone on the other end of the radio," he said.

The frequency of calls varies. Sometimes the two dispatchers have to juggle more than two calls at a time, placing lower-priority calls on hold, while during slower days, such as during the winter, several minutes may go by between calls. During those slow times, dispatchers do paperwork, Williamson said.

Most of the calls to the dispatch center are related to property damage, including vandalism and people looking for Civil War artifacts, he said.

When someone calls in a problem at a park, or an alarm is triggered, dispatchers use phone lists to contact a ranger to immediately check out the problem, he said.

Training dispatchers can be difficult because they have so much information and geography to learn. Before working at the dispatch center, employees have three months of orientation during which they go to the parks and get to know the lay of the land, Orlando said.

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