County’s 911 Communications Center: much more than answering phone calls

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Switzerland County Communications is an organization that many residents have never heard of; but without it, the lives of the people who live here would not be nearly as safe.

Switzerland County Communications is the organization that operates and oversees the county’s 911 emergency system. Recently, during National Telecommunications Week, Switzerland County 911 coordinator Richard Lay discussed the structure of his office and the different services that are provided to the county.

“Right now we have six full time dispatchers on staff,” Richard Lay said. “All of our dispatchers are Emergency Medical Dispatch certified, which means that they have the training to handle medical emergencies that come into the office until EMTs can get to the scene. That helps save lives. One of our dispatchers is also state certified as an EMT.”

Along with being able to handle medical calls, four of the dispatchers on staff also have been certified through the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy; and one of the dispatchers has a law enforcement background. That experience can assist people who are calling 911 with an emergency that involves the police department.

“Saving minutes can save lives,” Richard Lay said.

Dispatchers at Switzerland County Communications do much more than just answer the phone, as all employees study and train to be certified by various state and national agencies, with information ranging from medical to emergency management. They need to be ready for any type of emergency that may be phoned into Switzerland County 911.

The members of the Switzerland County Communications team are: Aaron Goldstone, Floyd Whitham, Sue Courtney, Angie Chase, Robbie Smith, and Gary Eldridge.

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Switzerland County Communications began in the old offices of the Switzerland County Sheriff’s department, sharing limited space the members of the sheriff’s department, along with the Indiana State Police and the Department of Natural Resources.

In September of 2005, the department moved across Pike Street and into the Switzerland County Detention Center, where it now has it’s own dedicated area.

And it’s a busy place.

Along with dispatching 911 calls, the office dispatches deputies with the Switzerland County Sheriff’s department; the Vevay Town Police department; all six Switzerland County volunteer fire departments; and Switzerland County EMS.

To handle all of this “traffic”, one dispatcher works from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and is then relieved by a dispatcher who works from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m. During the busier times of the day, an additional dispatcher also works from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. All of this goes on seven days a week, including holidays.

People in need don’t take a holiday.

The dispatcher center also works in a regional capacity, transferring calls to surrounding counties and towns as needed; along with calls where the Department of Natural Resources or the Indiana State Police are needed.

In 2006, all of that work translated to more than 10,000 phone calls.

Of those, 4,500 were 911 calls; 1,400 calls resulted in EMS being dispatched; and 600 were fire department calls. The office handled over 2,200 calls for the town of Vevay; and over 4,000 calls for the county.

But not all calls are of an emergency nature, and the communications staff handles those, too.

“We handle all sorts of regular phone calls that come in,” Richard Lay says, “We answer all kinds of questions on a daily basis.”

Along with phone calls, dispatchers are also responsible for entering warrants, protection orders, and civil papers that need to be served into the computer system. These papers come from a variety of agencies, along with the Switzerland County court system.

The local dispatching team also serves as a backup system for Ohio County Communications in the event that their system would go down – and Ohio County returns the favor as a backup for this system.

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While everyone knows to dial 911 in the event of an emergency, but some times people don’t understand what constitutes an “emergency call”.

Richard Lay says that residents should call 911 to report an incident that the caller believes requires a response or an intervention from law enforcement, firefighters, or emergency medical personnel.

Which service do you need? That’s where the expertise of the Switzerland County Communications staff comes in.

Once a 911 call comes into the system, a computer system using mapping technology to pin point the location that the call is coming from. This makes the response time quicker, especially in a medical situation.

If the call comes from a business and that business has a private switchboard, then the call pin points the building, but not the exact location.

“An example of this would be Belterra,” Richard Lay says. “We know that the call is coming from Belterra, but where in Belterra? That’s why callers need to give us as much information as possible.”

Another key to the Switzerland County 911 system is that calls can be made from anywhere. A person in need can make a call to 911 from payphones or cell phones in addition to normal land line phones.

The Switzerland County Communications Center will get 911 calls regardless of which cell phone carrier a person has. In some cases, those calls get directed to 911 centers in other parts of this area, but they are quickly redirected to the Switzerland County center.

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With all of the work that the Switzerland County Communications Center handles, Richard Lay says that everyone needs to remember that 911 should only be called in the event of an emergency situation.

“People shouldn’t use 911 to play games,” Richard Lay said. “Making false 911 calls ties up phone lines and could prevent a genuine emergency call from getting through.”

Richard Lay also said that people need to decide if the information that they need is an emergency before calling 911. If someone is just looking for information, they should call the Sheriff’s office at 427-3636.

Dispatch handles those calls, too.

“People call 911 to tell us that their electricity is out or they have a problem with their sewer line,” Richard Lay said. “They want weather information or other things like that. We can still help them, but they need to call the regular phone line to get that information.”

Things that people can do to help the 911 system is to alert dispatchers if there are any special needs at their homes. Emergency workers need to know if there are elderly or disabled people in the home. Anyone having hearing or sight problems should also be identified.

All of this information can be entered into a home’s emergency screen, which comes up when dispatch receives a 911 call from that location.

If you have information that needs to be entered on the screen, call the sheriff’s office at 427-3636 and ask to speak to 911 dispatch.

Another way to help emergency personnel is to post your house number clearly so that responders can find the residence more quickly.

“The Switzerland County Communications Center is open anytime that people want to see it,” Richard Lay said. “Anyone wanting to tour the center and see how things run should call me and I’ll be happy to answer any questions that I can.”