Communications Center is the Island's lifeline
"911, Sheriff's Department. This line is recorded. What's your emergency?"
With those words, a radio dispatcher seated in a small, dark room jammed full of equipment in a non-descript building near the Martha's Vineyard Airport braces for what she might hear.
The dispatcher knows that each 911 call that comes into the Dukes County Sheriff's Communications Center (DCSCC) harbors the possibility of an accident, medical emergency, injury, and death.
The dispatcher's face is illuminated by the glow of multiple computer screens. She glances at one that shows the 911 caller's location on a map of the Island.
The headquarters for help at Martha's Vineyard Airport. Photo by Ralph Stewart
The person she is about to talk to may be confused, unintelligible, screaming hysterically, in pain or in shock. He or she may speak broken English - or may barely be able to speak. Somehow the dispatcher must make sense of the situation and retrieve as many details from the caller as quickly as she can. In a serious emergency the dispatcher knows that every minute counts.
The dispatcher might need to provide lifesaving first aid instructions before an ambulance arrives for a heart attack victim sobbing in agony; or a mother whose baby stopped breathing and is turning blue.
At the same time the dispatcher may have to provide directions to first responders traveling down a dirt road. The call may involve someone the dispatcher knows, a friend, a neighbor, or even a family member.
She focuses on the 911 caller's words and mentally summarizes the details of the emergency. She checks a computer screen that displays the on-duty roster of first responders in Island towns.
Maj. Susan Schofield, Communications Center supervisor. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Who is on duty and who is available? Which town's fire department and emergency medical services should she send? Will more than one town need to respond?
As she weighs her decision, the hiss and crackle of radio communications from police, ambulance, and fire personnel provide startling bursts of noise, in harsh concert with the simultaneous rings of the 911 and non-emergency phone lines. A call from a person threatening suicide comes in at the same time as a call from someone asking what time the next ferry leaves Vineyard Haven.
The scenario is all too real for the nine women and men more officially known as telecommunicators who work on the front lines of the Island's emergency response system.
No typical day
"Their job goes from zero to one hundred miles per hour at a moment's notice," said Dukes County Sheriff Michael McCormack. The sheriff's department is responsible for the communications center (ComCenter).
Sheriff McCormack appreciates the difficult job telecommunicators perform 24 hours a day, seven days a week. "When the phone rings, it could be a simple call for information or it could be a life or death situation," he said. "They never know what is on the other end of that line when they pick up the phone."
Sgt. Linda Cook. Photo by Janet Hefler
Acting as unseen conductors, they orchestrate the response of 66 Island agencies, including police, fire, and ambulance services. They provide medical instruction before help arrives, dispatch aid to the injured, sick and dying, and keep track of police officers and EMTs.
The telecommunicators also 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.
There are six fire and police departments, four ambulance services, and a State Police unit operating on the Island. The telecommunicators must be aware of different policies and procedures, and make split-second decisions to quickly dispatch the right combination of personnel and equipment, especially at peak times when resources are spread thin.
The DCSCC has received recognition from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety as a model for regional dispatching services, Sheriff McCormack is proud to note. "We are the most complete dispatch center, meaning that we are the primary public safety answering point for all law-enforcement and public safety services in the entire county," he said. "There is not another sheriff's office or another agency that can say that throughout the Commonwealth."
Sgt. Nicole Gazaille. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Yet despite their important role, Sheriff McCormack said telecommunicators often go unrecognized by the public. "I always read letters to the editor from people who thank the EMTs, the firefighters, the police, and everybody else, and nobody ever says thanks to the telecommunicator who initiated it all," he said.
Eye of the storm
A 114-foot antenna tower makes it easy to spot the communications center, located in a 25-year-old ranch-style building next to the community corrections center near the Martha's Vineyard Airport terminal. Security cameras aimed at the front door and parking lot ensure that visitors are identified before a buzzer sounds and the door unlocks.
Three workstations take up the length of the building's main room, where usually two telecommunicators work per shift. Each workstation contains a bank of radio equipment, with separate switchboards for 911 and non-emergency calls, two keyboards, and five computer screens.
One screen shows an ongoing call log for a 24-hour period and a roster of on-duty police officers by town. Another screen displays the active call to which the telecommunicator is responding. A third screen displays an Island map, which pinpoints exactly where a call is coming from. The new mapping feature is part of an enhanced 911 system put into operation on Sept. 18.
Dep. Maria Williams. Photo by Janet Hefler
During times of heavy call volume or when 911 lines are all in use, after three rings, emergency calls are routed to the Barnstable County Communications Center and then relayed back to the DCSCC. Until the new 911 system went into effect, 911 cell phone calls made on Martha's Vineyard were automatically forwarded to the Massachusetts State Police in Framingham and then transferred to the DCSCC.
The new 911 system makes it possible to pick up more wireless phone call signals and gives an indication of the percentage of accuracy for the caller's location. The improved system also provides more detailed data, which will make it possible to track the calls in more specific categories.
Records and reference books fill shelves on the opposite wall of the room. Below are two computers linked to the nationwide Criminal Justice Information System, which provide information about the status of vehicle registrations, driver's licenses and suspensions, stolen vehicles, outstanding warrants, and criminal records checks.
The communications center also dispatches responses to alarms for private homes, businesses, and municipal buildings for medical emergencies, carbon monoxide leaks, burglaries, fires, frozen pipes, electrical problems, pump failures - you name it.
Sgt. Bobby Brown. Photo by Janet Hefler
From calm to chaos
It is 6:03 pm on August 2 in the ComCenter when the phone rings. The caller is a distraught woman asking for directions to the nearest hospital as she drives around Edgartown. Sgt. Linda Cook struggles to hear her voice over the sound of a child screaming in the background. The mother says she thinks her child's arm is broken.
She and her family are vacationing on the Island for the first time. Uncertain which way to go, she is driving down Main Street while her husband tries to comfort the hysterical child in the back seat.
Sergeant Cook's rapid-fire questions elicit needed details: "Listen to me - there's no hospital in Edgartown. What happened to the child? Three years old? The child was running and fell from a jungle gym. Not unconscious at any time?"
"You're coming up on the Village Market on the right. Pull over into the parking lot and stay right there in the car."
"I've dispatched an ambulance. Can you hear the siren now?
"Can whoever is not holding the child get out of the van and flag the ambulance down?"
"It's okay now," Sgt. Cook assures the mother, who hangs up without thanking her.
Dep. Sarah Townes. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Invited to observe the communication center's operations, the Times spent several hours over different shifts. In an attempt to prepare the reporter for what it would be like, supervisor Maj. Susan Schofield said, "There are times when there will be nothing going on, and you may be staring at the wall, and then the next thing you know, it's chaos - everything always happens at once." She was right.
With shades drawn and little light except from computer screens, the communications center has the atmosphere of an underground bunker. For the novice observer, there is an underlying sense of anticipation and tension. The expression "waiting for the other shoe to drop" comes to mind.
Throughout each shift, the pace ebbs and flows erratically, a disconcerting mix of drama and routine with calls that run the gamut from emergency to absurdity. For example, at 2:30 pm on August 11, a woman called to ask if someone could deliver a take-out meal to her at South Beach.
Although the telecommunicators respond to different calls and work independently, they must remain constantly attuned to each other and coordinate their responses. Every call that requires an action, whether an emergency or not, must be logged on the computer, a three-step process that is supposed to happen in real time.
Dep. Elizabeth Gilmore. Photo by Janet Hefler
To cope with the constant interruption of incoming calls while trying to finish incident reports, telecommunicators jot down times and details so data can be entered when they have a spare moment. Some calls may be resolved in minutes, while others take hours, depending on the response and follow-up required.
As they juggle several calls at once, telecommunicators also receive requests from police officers to run license plate checks and quickly wheel their desk chairs to the two computers behind them. They also must remember to check in every five minutes with police officers to ensure their safety as they respond to an incident or stop a motorist. A kitchen timer is set to ring as a reminder.
The voices on the radio
Maj. Schofield describes the communications center staff, who hold various ranks, as "all different types of people, with no certain personality." However, several of them have similar backgrounds, with experience in criminal justice and law enforcement or as emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and firefighters. With the exception of deputies Elizabeth Gilmore and Steve Mathias, all grew up on the Island.
"Our job is stressful, but it's rewarding to help people," Maj. Schofield said, a sentiment echoed by every staff member. After working 10 years at the communications center, she said she comes to work every day knowing that, "At any time, anything can happen."
Sgt. Kathryn Mercier. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Sgt. Kathryn Mercier, a grandmother of three, said she has enjoyed her job for 13 years because, "It's different - it's not the same thing every time."
Dep. Maria Williams, the most recent addition to the staff, said she finds it satisfying "to get help there and know that you've helped someone - you try and make that difference."
Sgt. Bobby Brown initially started with the Sheriff's Department as a corrections officer and helped out at the communications center one summer when it was short-staffed. "I always said I couldn't do this job, handling all the phones, listening to all that," he said, adding ruefully that he has now worked there for 12 years.
After 20 years on the job, Sgt. Cook has found that dispatch lingo becomes second nature, even at home. She said that everyone in her family, including her two grandchildren, knows that, "Everything is by code at my house - everything is affirmative or negative."
Dep. Sarah Townes said she would find it difficult to work in an office after six years as a telecommunicator. "I think I'm an adrenaline junkie now," she said. "When I'm home and I hear sirens, I just want to know, who's going? What happened?"
Sgt. Nicole Gazaille said after wrestling with the choice, she decided to work at the communications center rather than take a full-time job as an Edgartown police officer. "Working as a police officer is fun part-time, but growing up on the Island, having to arrest people I knew wasn't for me," she said. "I like being here and having my fingers in everything - plus, it's safer."
Dep. Mathias joined the communications center last spring, a change of pace after working in Freetown, where he dealt with one small town instead of six. "Freetown year-round is like winter here, with some general calls during the day and a few emergency calls at night," he explained.
Dep. Steve Mathias. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Although Dep. Gilmore left the communications center to teach health and physical education at Abigail Adams Middle School in Weymouth, she returned to work part-time at the center for the past two summers and on holidays and weekends during the school year. "I get to do a job I really enjoy and keep my hand in it," she said. "Working in this field, you deal with the public and are always providing assistance to someone in the community. There is not much that happens on the Island that you are not part of."
Multi-tasking in stereo
Although the former job title was "dispatcher," the new term, "telecommunicator," more accurately describes an occupation that has evolved in complexity and technological demands. To ensure standardized training, the Massachusetts Statewide Emergency Telecommunications Board operates a five-week public safety communications academy at various sites statewide.
"People don't understand our job," Dep. Williams said. "They ask, what do you guys do, just sit there and answer the phone?"
Telecommunicators are required to be trained, tested, and certified in emergency medical, fire service, and law enforcement computer-aided dispatch, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, suicide intervention, domestic violence prevention, and state and national disasters and emergency response. They also must be recertified every one to two years in certain areas.
"It takes a very special person to be one of our telecommunicators because of the skills you need to have, the ability to multitask, the ability to stay calm in an emergency situation, and the ability to listen to a call and dispatch it exactly as you heard it to get the help that is needed," Sheriff McCormack explained.
In addition to remaining calm in tense situations, Maj. Schofield said, "You have to be able to interpret what the person is saying to you. It's definitely a detective game at times."
That becomes more of a challenge when handling 911 calls from those in the Island's large Brazilian community who speak little or no English. Although the telecommunicators have a number to call for language services, in an emergency situation they may not have time to wait for an interpreter. Instead, they try to get enough information to figure out the emergency location as quickly as possible.
Sometimes they must err on the side of caution, as Sgt. Brown found out. One night, he took a call from a Brazilian woman who kept repeating what sounded like, "big fire, big fire." He dispatched fire fighters to the scene, who found that the "big fire" was actually a "big fight."
Unlike some communications centers where there are call takers and call dispatchers, the DCSCC staff handles both. They agreed that learning how to answer and respond to several calls at once is the job's biggest challenge.
"Your ears have to work independently to work here," Sgt. Cook said. "You have to be able to hear the person on the phone and hear the radio at the same time."
Being new to the job, Dep. Williams said she found it difficult to learn how to dispatch calls without saying too much or too little, as well as figuring out the right level of response to send. "All in a matter of seconds, you've got to figure it out," she said. "As Sergeant Brown taught me, 'When in doubt, send 'em out."
Telecommunicators also must keep up to date on new neighborhoods, which may lack house numbers and road names at first. Before 911 addresses were assigned several years ago, Sheriff McCormack said, "You'd hear someone on the radio giving directions such as, it's the third house on the left on the fourth dirt road on the right after the speed bump,"
When Sgt. Mercier first started at the communications center, veteran police officers often referred to Island roads using old nicknames, out of habit. "Vineyard Haven-Edgartown Road was always known as the 'back road,' Barnes Road as 'airport road,' and Old County Road as 'German road,'" she recalled.
She also finds that sometimes long-time Island residents give just their name and no address when they call 911and request an ambulance. "They insist, 'The EMTs know where I live,'" Sgt. Mercier said. "They don't realize EMTs respond from different towns."
As the Island has grown, so has the need for more services. "There are 10 variations for each town as to who we'll call for emergency services. We're trying to get them to standardize," Maj. Schofield said.
All in a day's work
When someone dials the non-emergency number, 508-693-1212, they are greeted with, "Sheriff's Department communications, recorded line." Many callers seem to consider it a cross between directory assistance and an information hotline. Questions about the Lagoon Pond drawbridge and ferry schedules, dump hours, directions, and even restaurant recommendations are not uncommon.
At least once a summer, Sgt. Cook said someone calls to report, "There's a seal on the beach - they're supposed to be in the water."
Although routine, those calls must be referred to the New England Aquarium. "You name it - we get calls about dead birds, rabid skunks and squirrels," she added. "I asked one caller one time, what makes you think the squirrels you're watching are rabid? And he said, 'They're running up and down the trees.'"
The telecommunicators know from experience they can expect their busiest times to occur from 10 am to 2 pm, 3 to 7 pm, and 10 pm to 1 pm, especially on weekends. During the summer, their pace picks up during mid morning as people head to the beach, around 4 pm when they start leaving, and after midnight when the bars close.
One of the busiest 911 emergencies occurred when an airplane piloted by John F. Kennedy Jr. with two passengers crashed in the ocean off Aquinnah on July 16, 1999, Sgt. Mercier recalled. In addition to calls from law enforcement personnel and dozens of agencies joining in the search effort, she said, "Every psychic in the U.S. called to tell us, 'I can see the plane - it's somewhere underwater.'"
Weather can set off a flurry of calls, particularly about outdoor events canceled by rain, school closings due to snowstorms, and power outages caused by electrical storms. Instead of listening to the radio to find out about event cancellations or calling NStar to report power outages, many Islanders call the communications center.
"People act like they think it's our fault," Sgt. Brown said. "They'll say, when is the power coming back on? I've got a fridge full of food, and guests coming for dinner."
The emotional toll
Working in a tight-knit Island community is not always easy. Telecommunicators inevitably have to dispatch help for someone they know, including friends and family. Although emotionally disturbing calls are a given in their job, they said they try to put them out of their heads when they leave work. However, as Sgt. Gazaille admitted, "You never forget some of the calls."
Sgt. Cook said she has had four calls over the years that really bothered her, particularly one from a woman who had just witnessed her boyfriend's suicide. She said she woke up hearing the woman's screams in her head for many nights afterwards. Deputy Townes said she, too, lost sleep after taking a call from anguished parents who found their six-week-old baby dead from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Both women also have dealt with emergency calls for family members. Sergeant Cook once took a 911 call from her husband and had to dispatch an ambulance for their daughter, whose horse had tripped and fallen on her. On one of two occasions Deputy Townes dispatched an ambulance for a relative. She said, "I didn't know it was my mom screaming into the phone until I saw the name and address on the screen."
One of a telecommunicator's most difficult tasks, however, is prioritizing emergency calls that come in at the same time.
"There have been times when I had a heart attack victim on one line and someone threatening to commit suicide on the other, and had to put one on hold," Deputy Gilmore recalled.
By contrast, she also experienced the reward of helping to save someone's life over the phone. She once gave instructions on how to perform the Heimlich maneuver to a wife whose husband was choking. Dep. Gilmore actually heard the man expel the obstruction and begin talking. The recorded call was later used in training classes.
For the majority of calls, telecommunicators never know the final outcome for the people they've tried to help. Deputy Mathias said he found it difficult not knowing what happened after he talked to an elderly woman who called from out of state requesting help from Island police in locating her son, who had called his mother threatening suicide.
Sergeant Mercier said the case of a baby abandoned at a Vineyard Haven Church a few years ago was one of the few that stayed with her. "That one bothered me - I kept wondering when I went home that night if the baby made it," she said.
"You can only do so much," Sergeant Cook said. "You have to accept that you don't have an end to every call, and that's an awful feeling."
For calls that are particularly upsetting, counseling is available through a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing Team from Barnstable. A state program also offers workshops on stress identification and management, including how to deal with the after-effects of critical incidents.
The DCSCC upgraded to its present computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system in 2004. Previously, the telecommunicators kept a hand-written log of every time they pushed a button to respond to any type of call. Under the CAD system, however, all calls relating to the same incident are logged as one. In trying to compare call volume statistics over the past several years, the difference in accounting methods makes it appear that call volume is down, which is not the case.
Cell phones have added tremendously to the communications center's call volume. "Instead of getting three calls from people reporting a car accident, we get ten," Major Schofield said. Nonetheless, Sheriff McCormack said, "I don't want to discourage anybody from reporting an emergency."
In 2006 he went before the Martha's Vineyard Airport commissioners, the Massachusetts Aeronautics Board, and the Federal Aviation Administration to request the replacement of a 65-foot antenna tower at the communications center with a 114-foot tower.
"As soon as we did that and put our transmitting antennas on it, there was a marked improvement in coverage on the Island," Sheriff McCormack said. Communications remain a frequent topic in his monthly meetings with the Martha's Vineyard Chiefs of Police Association, he added.
Sheriff McCormack said he is seeking funding through a capital bond bill to refurbish the basement of the community corrections center and relocate both the communications center and county emergency management department there. Working with the state's department of capital asset management and the executive office of public safety, Sheriff McCormack came up with a plan for the basement that would accommodate both agencies, as well as a shared kitchen, bunk area, bathroom, and shower.
Despite efforts to improve equipment and the facility, Major Schofield said her biggest challenge remains staffing. "We have funding for 10 people, and sometimes we get close - I look at the glass half full," she said.
With Deputy Gilmore's return to teaching last month, the staff is down to eight. When short-staffed, twelve-hour and sixteen-hour shifts are not uncommon in order to fill a lot of overtime hours and coverage for sick leave or time off.
"They're all dedicated people, and because we're constantly short-handed and can never find enough qualified people to hire, they're all putting in more than 40 hours a week, which gets very demanding on their personal life as well," Sheriff McCormack said. "But it's a very rewarding job, and we would always welcome anyone who may be interested to apply."
Major Schofield said it takes about four to six months to train someone, and it may take a few years before someone feels comfortable in the job.
"Another reason we have a hard time filling the positions is because of the level of responsibility," Sheriff McCormack said. "The life and death potential situations they have to deal with - some people just don't want to make that sort of commitment."
The communications center staff who have made that commitment, however, remain dedicated to helping people, despite knowing their efforts may go unrecognized.
"We're the unsung heroes," Sergeant Brown said, adding the reminder, "Who was sitting in the chair awake at 3 am to call the EMS or firefighters who are home sleeping, to get them there?"