New Dukes County Communications Center hosts open house Sunday

The new Dukes County Communications Center, in the basement of the building at left, is tucked away out of sight off the airport entrance road. Despite its outward appearance, it is a very busy place. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Seven days a week, 24 hours a day, the unseen men and women who staff the Dukes Country Sheriff’s Office Communications Center (DCSO Com Center) remain vigilant, ready to summon help for any type of Island emergency.

Islanders have an opportunity to meet the operators that handle 9-1-1 calls and tour the new Com Center facility at an open house from noon to 4 pm this Sunday, May 19. The Com Center is located in the basement of the Community Corrections Center at 9 Flight Path near the Martha’s Vineyard Airport terminal. There will be signs to direct people.

The event kicks off at noon with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and brief remarks by Dukes County Sheriff Michael McCormack, whose department is responsible for the Com Center.

In addition to touring the center and meeting the staff, visitors can get a closeup look at a variety of emergency response vehicles, including fire trucks, the Island’s mobile command unit, and police and sheriff’s department cruisers, on display on the grounds outside.

An ambulance in the lineup will serve double duty as the site for free blood pressure checks. For those who work up an appetite, the Com Center staff will be grilling up free hamburgers and hot dogs.

The spacious new Com Center opened last December, directly across the parking lot from its former location in a small cramped building more than 30 years old that was originally a ranch-style house. The improved, modern facility includes four new work stations with new consoles, furniture, computers and radio equipment, a bunk room, offices for a computer technician, conference room for emergency management meetings, and a full kitchen.

The new facility is about 3,000 square feet, Sheriff McCormack said. In 2006, he commissioned a study through the state’s Department of Capital Asset Management and worked with Baker Wohl Architects on the Com Center’s design. Sheriff McCormack applied for grants in fiscal years 2009, 2010 and 2011 from the State’s 9-1-1 Department under the Executive Office of Public Safety, and received a total of $1,564,000 for the project, completed last November.

There are nine full-time telecommunicators and one in training who work at the Com Center. The opportunity to meet them Sunday and see the faces behind the calm voices that answer 9-1-1 calls will be a first for most Islanders. The same goes for many first responders, who speak with the telecommunicators by radio every day but never see them in person.

Unlike many communications centers elsewhere that handle only police calls or fire and ambulance calls for one town or city, the DCSO Com Center dispatches calls for 66 agencies Island-wide, including police, fire, and EMS personnel. In 2012, the Com Center handled a total of 23,620 emergency and non-emergency calls.

The telecommunicators provide medical instruction before help arrives, dispatch aid to the injured, sick and dying, and keep track of police officers and EMTs.

The dedicated staff works around the clock to handle a variety of 9-1-1 calls. On any given day those may include medical emergencies, fires, motor vehicle accidents, plane crashes, swimmers in distress, sinking boats, assaults, domestic disturbances, burglaries, and missing persons. They also handle calls with requests to check on someone’s welfare or assist an elderly person, noise complaints, and reports of lost or found animals.

In addition to emergency calls, the telecommunicators provide information and answer questions on nearly everything about life on Martha’s Vineyard. The heavy volume of non-emergency calls added to their workload includes everything from people asking for directions to reporting seals asleep on a beach.

“Their job goes from zero to one hundred miles per hour at a moment’s notice,” Sheriff McCormack told The Times in a previous interview about the Com Center in October 2007.

Noting what a difficult job they have, he added, “When the phone rings, it could be a simple call for information or it could be a life-or-death situation. They never know what is on the other end of that line when they pick up the phone.”

As one dispatcher described, “One 9-1-1 call could be about dog walking slowly across a street, and the next call could be about somebody drowning.”

Working in a tight-knit Island community also adds to the stress and emotional impacts of the job. Telecommunicators inevitably have to dispatch help for someone they know, including family and friends.

Sunday’s open house is an event to celebrate their new workplace, learn more about what they do, and give them a thank-you, as well.

For more information, call the Com Center’s non-emergency number, 508-693-1212.