A call comes in–robbery in progress–deputy sheriff car 22 is closest but is on a collision call with injuries. Car 33 is available but it’s on the north side of the river and the bridge is closed due to the accident. Car 22 is on–wait, a second call is coming in, baby has stopped breathing–must send EMS; back to robbery–officer 11 has just returned from taking an arrest to jail. The robbery needs two units to respond. I’ll dispatch 11 and pull 33 from their lunch break to respond.
Now what happens if I get another call for law enforcement and I have no free officers to dispatch? Does the medical emergency need an officer to first arrive and ensure that the environment is safe for the EMS crew? Picture this same scenario repeatedly during a 12-hour shift. You can just imagine the intricacies of different real-life scenarios. It takes a special person to remain calm, poised and quick to assess and react appropriately.
Earlier this year, I voted to approve the purchase of simulation software to help the Williamson County’s 911 Communications Center, one of six sections of the Emergency Services Operations Center. The software will enable management to more rapidly and decisively select new applicants who have serving hearts, along with the stamina, common sense and fortitude to not only survive the pace and stress of this job, but thrive.
I wanted to experience the software (ECOMM) exam and a little of what occurs daily at our 911 center, so I signed up to be a testee. On an early June 5, morning, I sat among a group of real applicants in a well-designed testing and training room at the communications center, and we took the first exam, lasting about two and a half hours.
Each video simulation is timed, and during the exam, you’re looking up at one of several screens, listening to the call, taking notes and bubbling in your answers with a pencil on a sheet. After we finished this test, we all took the Select Advantage test that the 911 center has been using for 10 years.
While Select Advantage assesses an individual’s personality to see if the applicant is fit for this profession, ECOMM identifies inherent rather than trainable skills. It’s a pass or fail test, so if you fail it, then your Select Advantage test is not scored. However, people who fail can retest within a year.
Scott Parker, director of the communications center, calls ECOMM the gold standard of the industry and is confident that this tool will be a huge asset to the hiring process. “We need independent thinking people who know how to deliver service and care whether it’s a plane crash or a dog barking excessively.”
When fully staffed, the 911 center has 70 employees, and 50 are dispatchers, also called telecommunicators, who work shifts from either 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., or 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., answering emergency calls countywide.
Sometimes callers become rude and irrational, but telecommunicators are trained not to take insults personally and instead focus and handle the emergency at hand. Other times terrified callers need to be calmed and reassured, and that’s where the caring heart comes in.
Before the simulated tests, one of the biggest hurdles Gene Smith, professional development manager, faced was trying to find the right hires. “Many people who apply are wonderful people and smart; however, they may not have the right skills set to handle the 911 calls,” he said.
Three years ago, the 911 center was the answering service for the county. Today if people call on a matter unrelated to an emergency, the telecommunicators are trained to courteously and professionally reroute those calls to the right numbers. By leveraging technology and improving training, the communications center has eliminated 80 percent of non-911 calls. Their average call volume is about 725 calls per day, and that includes 9-1-1 as well as non-emergency calls.
With the simulated software, the 911 center saves money because instead of a week-long interview process for many applicants, up to 40 people can take both tests on either a morning or afternoon.
Selecting the right employees reduces the cost of turnover rates by eliminating constant processing and training of new employees. The highest retention rates are usually among employees with emergency center experience. Although loss of floor dispatchers in our county is less than the national average of 23 percent, we still lose employees locally to cities like Round Rock and Georgetown, who can offer better salaries. Most 911 centers pay $45,000 to $48,000 annually. Wilco dispatchers make $40,000 a year plus the necessary overtime. We’re getting closer to the average salary, but currently our funds are tightly stretched across the county for many essential services.
Another goal of the 911 center is shortening the length of time a staff member helps train a new hire. Mr. Parker said, “We want to hire folks who can train for four weeks and then be independent out on the floor to ensure we have as many dispatchers as possible answering calls.”
A few years ago, I needed 911 services. I was driving on A.W. Grimes Boulevard and had just driven past the light on Palm Valley, heading south at 35 miles per hour and leading a line of cars. A young man darted from the sidewalk without looking back over his shoulder for on-coming traffic and ran right into the side of my vehicle, rendering him unconscious. I grabbed my cell phone and ran, along with my sister who is a nurse, to his crumpled body on the street. As she checked his vitals, I madly dialed 911. My description of the event matched my rapid heart rate, and the 911 operator quickly took control and had me stop and take a deep breath. She calmly instructed me to slow down and give her the relevant data so that she could dispatch the appropriate responders.
Looking back on this experience, I can now fully comprehend the need for selecting the right personnel for emergencies like the one I experienced, and for those calls of lesser or greater urgency.
I now also more fully appreciate that while getting law enforcement to an emergency as fast as possible, one of a dispatcher’s highest priorities is ensuring their safety. I’m told Wilco has a 99.97 percent success rate for processing calls. A dispatcher must execute the best judgment because any error may lead to that officer’s death.
An area of interest is the 911 center’s splintered range of service. Georgetown is self-contained for 911 calls. The Wilco 911 center provides service to Round Rock and Cedar Park for EMS only because both cities provide 911 service for their fire and law enforcement responders. Leander and Taylor have self-contained law enforcement, but they rely on Wilco to dispatch their fire and EMS responders.
A few days before the tests, I met with Mr. Parker, Mr. Smith, Terry Purvis, assistant director of technology, and Captain Rita Martinez, a former Georgetown police officer, to discuss the 911 center’s needs. I couldn’t help but feel their passion for their work and for employees of the center.
Could there be life for me at the 911 center after my tenure with the Commissioners Court?