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Dispatchers offer calm voice at hectic time

April 09, 2007|by KAREN HANNA

HAGERSTOWN - In the basement of 33 W. Washington St., where computer monitors and a television screen seem to provide most of the light, the voices of sometimes frantic telephone callers announce the news of births, deaths, fires and injuries.

When things are at their busiest, dispatcher supervisor Tina Bowers said, her team often is at its best.

"You can take someone from hysterical to reasonable just from your tone of voice," said Bowers, of Williamsport, who was working with two communications specialists and a trainee last Friday as emergency workers responded to a report of a structure fire.

National Public Safety Telecommunications Week, which honors dispatchers, started Sunday.

Jennifer Swisher, assistant chief of the Washington County Division of Fire and Emergency Services, said the county's communications specialists must complete 300 hours of in-house training and 72 hours of certification training.

The four people working Friday each said they have some background in emergency medical or fire response.

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"Basically, my dad was in it, my grandfather was in it, and I enjoy helping the community," said Bryan Stallings, 37, of Hagerstown.

County dispatcher Marshall Marvelis Jr. will be honored at the Tri-State telecommunicators' 14th annual awards banquet in Frederick, Md., this Friday, Swisher said.

Swisher said Marvelis, who was not available for comment for this story, was chosen by his colleagues.

Thirty-two communications specialists work for the county, Swisher said.

Bowers and her colleagues use scripts to determine what kind of help callers need, and as one dispatcher is on the phone, another is summoning aid.

Arranged like flowcharts, the scripts, which are available in a card file and programmed into the dispatchers' computer monitors, proceed according to each caller's answers. Whether the call concerns a structure fire, a boat in distress, a man down, or one of numerous other situations, dispatchers know right away what question to ask.

Armed with all the right questions, dispatchers do not always have the answers callers want.

For Stallings, a "very emotionally draining call" came when a woman reported that she had woken to find her husband not breathing.

Stallings said he helped the woman, who lived in the one of the county's most remote areas, perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation as she waited 17 or 18 minutes for an ambulance for her husband.

Stallings said he does not know how the man fared.

"Basically, more than anything, it was keeping the caller quiet, or not quiet - calm - where you reassure her that she was doing the best thing for her husband possible," Stallings said.

Stallings, who like several of his colleagues is also an emergency services volunteer, said he caught just a few hours of sleep before going to work. On the previous night, he was out as a volunteer.

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