When someone called for help a decade ago, the first question a 911 operator would ask a caller was, “What is your emergency?” Now, operators who work for ChatComm, the Sandy Springs-based 911 call center, ask, “Where is your emergency?”
Cellphones, unlike older “land lines,” are not tied to any particular addresses, so the proliferation of mobile communication devices has changed the way 911 operators gather information in order to dispatch police and firefighters to emergencies.
“There are 400,000 people who travel Ga. 400 and I-285, and they are just passing by,” said Stephen Pierce, an operations specialist with the Chattahoochee River 911 Authority, which usually is known by its nickname, ChatComm. “They don’t really know where they are.”
Neither, for the most part, do 911 operators.
If you think you or a loved one is having a heart attack, grab a land line because the operator will see the address associated with the line, Pierce said. He recommends residents register cellphones with Smart 911.com, a public service that allows users to provide information online that would help first responders locate them and understand ongoing medical issues.
ChatComm has changed in other ways, too. It has grown during its six years of operation. The agency, owned by the cities of Sandy Springs and Johns Creek, dispatches police and fire officers in those cities and police officers in Dunwoody and Brookhaven. It was the first public-private partnership to run a 911 call center, Pierce said.
Pierce said he predicts that with coming changes in technology, locating cellphone callers won’t present the problem they do now. Future 911 operators will be able to tell automatically where a caller is located, down to finding the room inside a high-rise building a call comes from.
Pierce started as a police officer in the 1970s, when 911 didn’t exist at all. People in emergency situations either called the local sheriff’s office, the fire department or the local ambulance service.
A 20-minute response time would have been considered fast in some rural areas, he said. Few people knew CPR and procedures to help people provide first aid over the phone often failed, Pierce said. Now, ChatComm can instantly dispatch a police officer who has first aid training skills and equipment.
In Dunwoody and Brookhaven, medical and fire response services have to be transferred from ChatComm to DeKalb County. Former Councilman Danny Ross voted against Dunwoody’s switch to ChatComm four years ago, saying the one-button transfer takes too long.
Ross said his solution four years ago would have been for Dunwoody to start its own emergency call center.
“The transfer is the problem,” Ross said. “I voted against it because we couldn’t do the entire process. We should have our own 911 system.”
He said he tried to convince Brookhaven not to switch to ChatComm, which the city did a year ago. “I made a presentation to Brookhaven before they decided to go to ChatComm,” Ross said. “They have the same problem we do and they’ve just accepted that it will take a few minutes to transfer the call. They don’t have any plans to do what Dunwoody is trying to work on.”
Pierce called the Dunwoody-driven push to connect the Computer Aided Dispatch systems used by ChatComm and DeKalb an “above and beyond” measure. Engineers are currently working to fix an issue with the firewall. Another live test will be needed before the system can “go live,” Pierce said.
When Pierce started with ChatComm six years ago, he sat down as a dispatcher. He said he “got bored” after retiring from law enforcement and took up an opportunity to work at a private 911 call center. “I was blown away with the professionalism,” Pierce said.
Brittany Baxter left the restaurant industry to join ChatComm as a dispatcher. Now, she’s the floor supervisor. She said multi-tasking helped prepare her for call taking.
“The fast pace, you’ve got to get those pizzas out,” Baxter said. “That’s what helped—having to do everything under pressure.”
Pierce said her ability to handle many things at once and to deal with rude people gave her the experience needed to take 911 calls. “It takes a special person to be able to smile and do your job, and that’s the same way when you’re taking a 911 call,” Pierce said.