In a dimly lit room, Rhonda Blackman calmly asks a series of important questions while holding a phone.
“How old is she?”
“Is she changing colors?”
“Did she take any drugs or medications in the past 24 hours?”
During the call, she continues to ask important questions to help someone suffering from chest pains. She advises the caller to get aspirin and then asked about the milligrams.
Blackman reassures her that emergency officials are on their way.
“Don’t let her have anything to eat or drink …,” Blackman advises. “Unlock the door and have someone available to meet the paramedics.”
Inside the 911 center at the Sampson County Emergency Management building, it’s one of many calls they receive on any given day from folks who need help.
After the call, she leans back in her chair. The light from the ceiling turns her desk and skin red. For the telecommunicators, light relieves the stress of many calls which may result in life or death.
“It’s a stressful job,” Blackman attested. “You deal with a lot in here.”
Like Blackman, Jamey Jones also experiences that stress.
“A child,” he said. “That will really tear you up. You have to compose yourself.”
He is currently a fire chief at the Vann Crossroads Fire Department and has been with the station for 27 years.
“I enjoy it,” Jones said.
They spend many hours answering calls from the public. There are some good times, but the bad ones often outweigh those.
“A lot of emotions go on in here; people on the outside do not realize what we go through in here,” she said. “It’s tough.”
Unfortunately, dealing with death is a part of her job.
“You carry that home with you,” Blackman said. “They tell you to leave it here, but you can’t leave it at work. It plays over and over in your mind.”
Blackman may have to deal with someone dying, but she has helped bring people into the world before, too.
“When you hear that baby cry, you know that baby is OK,” she said.
Blackman enjoys working with her co-workers and the responders.
“It’s like a family,” she said. “You spend more time with these people than you do with your own family,” she stressed.
The system allows the public to get in touch with emergency professionals after dialing 911. People call for a variety of reasons. Some of the incidents include fires, wrecks, disputes, burglar alarms or medical issues.
It’s the only center for all of the agencies in the county. After business hours, someone is always available to answer lines for the Sheriff’s Office, Public Works and other emergency agencies.
Ronald Bass, emergency services director, and Telecommunications Manager Roberta Parker said the center receives more than 200 calls in a 24-hour period.
“Some days, there’s more,” Bass noted. “About two weeks ago, one day, we had 267 calls, and 42 of those calls were EMS. That was an extremely busy day.”
Personnel and staffing is an issue at the center.
“We could use more staff, but we don’t have the room,” Parker said.
The ideal center would include a call taker and dispatcher. But in Sampson County, it’s double duty.
“In larger centers, you have a call taker who takes all the calls and puts them into the CAD (computer aided dispatch) and another person just dispatches them,” Parker said. “They don’t have to talk to the caller.”
The center also has to deal with surrounding counties paying more money for telecommunicators.
“The job can be very stressful, but it can also be very rewarding,” Bass said.
Parker expressed that, using as an example a “Thank You” card and a box of candy from one caller during Christmas time.
“Just that one time, in 23 years, makes the job worth it,” Parker asserted.
Alex Blackburn recently joined the group and currently trained with Cliff Brown, assistant shift supervisor.
“I’m making progress,” Blackburn said.
He has a background with helping people through fire and EMS training.
“For someone fresh off the street, it takes a little longer,” Brown said.
After 5 p.m. is a busy time for them.
“People are getting home and finding break-ins at their house,” Parker said.
Many people will assume that Friday or Saturday is a busy time for the group. But Parker said Tuesdays keeps them occupied, too.
Strangely, a full moon is also a busy time at the center.
“The saying about full moons is the truth,” Parker said. “You double a full moon with Friday the 13th and it’s happening.”
Receiving bizarre calls is another part of the job. Parker recently received a call about “snakes in a couch.”
There’s also the “frequent flyer” callers with recognizable numbers for incidents such as domestic issues.
The telecommunicators are certified as Emergency Medical Dispatchers and go through a set of questions for particular incidents such as seizures, injuries, accidents or if someone does not have a heartbeat.
“We can assist the caller and walk them through CPR until EMS arrives,” Parker said while explaining the example. “If a caller is calling about someone bleeding profusely, we can walk them through hemorrhage control.”
But a lot of those questions may annoy the callers.
“Sometimes people get irritated with the questions we’re asking them, but those questions are for their safety or for our responder’s safety,” Parker said.
In a big county, a deputy may have to travel 20 miles to house.
“They’ll cuss you out a lot,” Jones said. “They call back and say I called you 30 minutes, but they really just called 8 minutes ago.”
There are also dangerous moments. Bass recalled a time when someone was trying to break inside a house, with a young girl inside. An officer was sent to the house, but a dispatcher assisted her first by comforting her on the phone.
“While the officer was getting there, he (the dispatcher) had her move to a back room and stayed on the phone with the young girl until an officer arrived,” Bass said. “Even though that was not a medical call, I think it was very important for that young girl that there was someone there she could talk to.”
For the upcoming budget year, Bass said the department is looking at using 911 funds to change to a different CAD system. It will allow for better communication with the responders. Parker said the upgrade will allow the dispatchers to see law enforcement vehicles on a screen.
In addition it will allow reports to be transmitted into the system. It’ll speed up the process for having records on file for all the units that have the same software.
“We have to wait for the officers to bring or fax us the reports now,” Parker said. “Once we get this new system and (the officers) hit the submit button, we’ll have that information too.”
The center was previously in the basement of the Sampson County Courthouse in downtown Clinton, before moving to its current location in the mid-1990s. Improvements include an enhanced 911 system, which allows dispatchers to match an address with a phone number, as well as cell phones location.
In the future, other improvements could include an upgrade of recording equipment and the phone system. Another improvement may include texting.
“As of right now, you cannot text 911 in our county,” Parker said.
Only a few counties in North Carolina are using texting technology. If implemented in more states, Parker said the public would have to be educated about it.
While most call 911 because they have an emergency, there are a lot of people, who accidently call the center, too. They usually hang up. “We’re going to call you back to make sure everything is OK,” Parker said.
During weather-related disasters, a lot of them stay overnight in the center, away from their families for several days.
“Our employees are willing to step up and come to work when they are not even asked to,” Bass said.
The recently installed 800 megahertz Viper System allows responders in the county to communicate on the same system.
“That was a big undertaking,” Bass said.
Another pending challenge is the budget. Bass and Parker said a proposed 5 percent decrease from the Sampson County Commissioners in the budget would be devastating and could result in a delay in response or less services, seomething no one wants to see happen or believes should happen.
At the 911 Center, the voice you hear, Bass and Parker stressed, is from a person who cares.
Parker said they’re a compassionate group of people.
“We do the very best we can to give the citizens the service they deserve,” Parker said.
“They play a very vital role in Sampson County,” Bass said about all emergency personnel. “This county has a lot to appreciate in emergency services. Not only with paid employees, but volunteers as well.”