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Dispatchers answer the call for help

April 12, 2004|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - It was a quiet Easter Sunday afternoon in the basement of the Franklin County Courthouse for the six telecommunicators manning the consoles in the 911 center. Between calls, some of the dispatchers looked up occasionally to check out what was happening at the Masters golf tournament.

"I'm used to watching NASCAR on Sundays," said Denny Clopper, a dispatcher for more than 14 years.

A quiet shift can turn around very quickly when someone calls in to report a fire, medical emergency, accident or crime. When that happens, the telecommunicators have to keep their heads as a tragedy unfolds over their headsets.

Shelby Jarosz worked as a dispatcher for a year in both York and Adams counties and was training Sunday to join the 21 full-time and nine part-time dispatchers in Franklin County.

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"There's been some really, really bad ones," she said of the calls she has taken.

Jarosz recalled a man who reported that his wife was crushed while unloading strawberries from their car. The woman apparently had not put the car in park and it rolled over her.

"He just kept crying, 'Momma,'" Jarosz said.

What could have been another tragedy, however, ended happily, Jarosz said. She got a call from a family who found a 2-year-old boy facedown in a pool.

"I gave them CPR instructions over the phone," she said.

Eventually, the boy's breathing was restored, but there were fears that he may have sustained serious brain damage.

"His grandmother called me about three days later and said he was up watching cartoons" at Hershey (Pa.) Medical Center.

"She called me her angel," Jarosz said of the grandmother.

That is the kind of assistance that 911 dispatchers are being honored for this week during National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week.

Dave Hann supervised the 7 a.m.-to-3 p.m. shift Sunday and recounted his most frustrating moment during more than three years as a dispatcher. It happened last September when a Chambersburg man was crushed when his lawn tractor rolled over on top of him.

Before he died, the man attempted to call 911 three times on his cell phone.

"That was the worst because we couldn't make out who he was, where he was or what happened," Hann said. Unlike traditional land lines, not all cell phone calls can be traced to where they originate.

Clopper said his worst moment occurred Jan. 20, 2003, when he was handling calls and a fellow firefighter from the West End Fire Co. in Shippensburg, Pa., was killed when the chimney of a burned-out building collapsed on him.

"They took me off the console and sent me home," Clopper said.

Many of the dispatchers, like Clopper, have experience in police, fire and emergency medical services.

As of Sunday, the dispatchers have taken almost 14,000 calls this year, but not all of them were emergencies.

"We got a call from a lady who called 911 to see what the best time is to go to Wal-Mart," dispatcher Mike Urso said.

Hann said one man called 911 just to tell one of the dispatchers that the tires for his truck had arrived.

"Working a thunderstorm is one of the most hectic times here," said Eric Warren, who also works as a paramedic in Alexandria, Va. The thunder, lightning and winds can set off automatic burglar and fire alarms, as well as causing power outages and contributing to vehicle accidents.

Hann said there also are a number of accidental 911 calls, either from children or people who programmed the number into their phones and accidentally hit the wrong button.

While there are a number of prank calls to the 911 center, most are from people who do not know what constitutes an emergency, or who do not know the proper nonemergency numbers to call.

"We're directory assistance," Urso said.

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