Martha’s Vineyard 911 dispatch — the first, first responders

Calls that range from life or death situations to outrage about telemarketers are all in a day’s, or night’s, work.

Deputy Pierce Harrer shows the location of a cell phone caller.— Gabrielle Mannino

They are there for you, 24/7, 365 days a year. They handle emergencies, tragedies, and at times comedies.

From the Communications Center at Martha’s Vineyard Airport, Dukes County Sheriff’s communications officers, or telecommunicators, see every color and hue of life on Martha’s Vineyard.

They are the calm voice that coaches CPR over the phone — an increasingly common scenario in the Island’s opioid epidemic.

They decipher static-filled cadences of letters, names, and numbers from police and fire departments, and respond in a language all their own, while multitasking on an array of screens.

Many telecommunicators are Islanders. They often know the families that have been struck by tragedy before the families know it themselves.

Sometimes, that tragedy is a friend.

They are the voice that will never put you on hold, and will unfailingly answer your call — unless you’re calling from the beach, asking where to get takeout food.

Yes, that has happened, along with calls about a goat’s head on a fence post and a suspicious ham, to name a few.

From 9 pm on New Year’s Eve until 3:30 am on New Year’s Day, Dukes County Sheriff’s telecommunicators fielded calls that included fireworks complaints, a disruptive partygoer who’d bragged on Facebook about his new knife, an open door at the Tisbury library, a “creepy” car parked at the side of the road, and a chimney fire, caught early by Tisbury firefighters at 3 am, when the temperature was hovering at 6°.

There were only two traffic stops, and, surprisingly for New Year’s, no OUIs.

“Every day is different, you never know what’s going to come your way,” 19-year veteran Lt. Nicole Graves said. “I love being part of the safety net here.” Before joining the Sheriff’s Department, Lt. Graves was a traffic officer in Edgartown, where her brother Michael is a sergeant with the department.

Lt. Graves works night shifts almost exclusively. “I like the nighttime, that’s when most of the calls come in,” she said. “When it gets busy, you just get into a zone. In the summer, you can have three, four calls going at once, you can call one company to the scene of an accident, call another for mutual aid, then call another company to the town providing the mutual aid.”

“Demand goes up tenfold in the summer,” said Deputy Anthony Gould, the only non-Islander of the five telecommunicators covering the two shifts that night. “There are eight-hour stretches where you can be welded to your desk. There’s calls from the beach, minor car accidents, visitors’ dogs running away, drunk and disorderly calls that can start first thing in the morning.”

Trainee Aaron Figueroa. — Gabrielle Mannino

Deputy Gould has been a telecommunicator for four years. Like many of the staff, he began as a first responder. “I started washing fire trucks when I was 15, when I was living in Albany,” he said. “I just wanted to be part of it all.” Deputy Gould worked as an EMT in upstate New York and then in opioid-riddled Rutland, Vermont before moving to the Vineyard. “I think being an EMT has made it easier to process the details, and to visualize what’s going on,” he said. “Sometimes this job gets pretty stressful and it can take its toll. It stays with you 24/7. But I love it.”

Deputy Gould said the perks of the job include the camaraderie of the small, close-knit group and on occasion, saving a life. He played a recording of a recent Priority 1 call — the names and the location edited out — where he coached a bystander to administer CPR to an apparent overdose victim. Against a backdrop of panic and chaos, he calmly kept the caller on task, while his shift partner, Deputy Pierce Harrer, directed EMS and police.

“We have a script for just about every occasion,” Deputy Harrer said, flipping through a color-coded, double-wide Rolodex. “We have to stick to the script to protect against possible litigation.”

Deputy Gould said usually dispatchers don’t know the outcome of a call, but in this case, he found out that the victim survived. “It’s the best feeling in the world,” he said.

Although they have a script, dispatchers also have to ad lib on occasion.

“I had a call from Cuttyhunk once, a woman was in a domestic situation, she was there for a wedding and had no idea what the address was,” Lt. Graves said. “With the information she provided, I found the house on a real estate website, and I stayed on the phone with her until the police chief arrived.”

Dispatcher Prudence Fisher, also an Islander, said local knowledge is helpful when dealing with visitors who might not even know what town they’re in.

“If somebody says they’re on a dirt road and there’s little alligator signs, I know where they are,” she said. “Being an Islander really helps. You know the place, you know the people, and you know how to handle the hard stuff.”

There is also a downside to that familiarity.

“I knew somebody who drowned last summer,” she said. “I was on the call with the woman who called it in, and I knew from the description and the location who it was.”

Lt. Graves said she took a call for a traffic fatality, knowing the young man’s mother worked at the hospital, and that she had no idea his lifeless body was on the way.

Both Ms. Fisher and Deputy Harrer said one of their most difficult calls was from a pregnant woman in Tisbury who was being attacked by three dogs.
“To hear her screaming and the dogs attacking, that’s something you don’t forget,” Deputy Harrer said.

Deputy Harrer was an EMT with Tisbury and Tri-Town before becoming a telecommunicator. In the summer he works as a Tisbury police officer. There is a high attrition rate for Dukes County telecommunicators. Shift work and stress take a toll.  So do economic factors. Telecommunicators start at about $40,000 a year, which doesn’t go far on Martha’s Vineyard, especially when it comes to housing. The last person that left was renting a room in a house. He found a job on the mainland that paid $20,000 more, in a town with no housing crisis, and no “Island factor” deductions. “People want to stay, but they just can’t,” Deputy Gould said. “I fortunately saved up when I first moved here, when I was doing carpentry and other jobs. Otherwise, it’d be really hard to make ends meet.”

Dialed in

It wasn’t long ago that Island cell phone callers were encouraged to dial the Comm Center directly, at 508-693-1212 in an emergency, but Deputy Gould stressed those days are over. “It’s really important that people call 911 on their cell phones, not the not the 1212 number. Even if they’re in a crappy reception location, we’ll see them,” he said, referring to geolocation from cell phone “pings” that shows exact location on several of the  Comm Center video monitors. “We can also find them on the water.”

Newer model, “Phase 2” cell phones, combined with new software that was installed at the Comm Center this April, allow responders to pinpoint the caller’s location.

“The newer the phone, the better the signal,” he said. “Sometimes we can tell what room they’re calling from.”

While communication has improved with incoming calls from civilians, dispatchers expressed concern about communications with Island first responders.

“There are dead spots in every town, up-Island is definitely worse,” Lt. Graves said. “A lot of times the static is so bad you can’t hear what they’re saying. It becomes a public safety issue when you can’t hear them.”

“Sometimes the cruiser radio works better than the portable, but that can mean leaving the scene so you can communicate,” Ms. Fisher said. “They shouldn’t have to do that.”

Deputy Anthony Gould shows where signals transmitted from Island-wide listening stations are received at the Comm Center. — Gabrielle Mannino

Deputy Gould also serves as the communications technician for the Comm Center. He said it’s imperative that the aging copper wire, which connects six wide-ranging antennas, or “listening sites,” to the Comm Center, be replaced. The antennas sit atop Peaked Hill, the Old Whaling Church, the water towers in Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Tisbury, and the West Tisbury fire tower. “Verizon no longer services copper wire,” he said. “It’s old and unreliable. Last summer we had multiple failures over the course of 48 hours. It’s not a matter of departments getting better radios. If the infrastructure is not there to back it up, it won’t matter.”


Quiet night

No one in the Comm Center noticed when midnight rang in the New Year. There was no celebration, no singing, no toasts to 2018. It was a relatively quiet New Year’s Eve. The Arctic temperatures apparently kept most Islanders in hibernation. But the safety net, which begins with the first, first responders, was ready to respond if something had gone wrong.

The phone rang at 12:20 am. It wasn’t an emergency. Sheriff Robert Ogden was calling to wish Lt. Graves and Dispatcher Fisher a Happy New Year.


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