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April 13-19 is National Public Safety Telecommunication Week, held each year to celebrate and honor the telecommunications personnel in the public safety community.
In addition to recognizing the communication officers, 911 Regional Coordinator Jolena Young also took the time this year to highlight the efforts of the Twin County E-911 Regional Commission. This group is made up of six individuals, two from each locality. Members include Dr. Tom Littrell and Mike Mock from Carroll County; Kenneth Belton and Terry Combs from Grayson County; and John Garner and Keith Barker from Galax.
In 2013, the commission said goodbye to two long-standing members: Ronald Newman, who served from May 1998 to January 2013; and Fields R. Young Jr. (or “Junior”), who served from March 1988 to December 2013.
Junior was a member of the commission when it was first established, and he still remembers what emergency response was like before the center was opened.
“Prior to [this effort], you had to call the sheriff’s department for any emergency, whether you needed the fire department, a doctor or the police,” he told The Gazette.
This process took up valuable time, as the person having the emergency would have to look up the number for their local police department, make the call and then wait while the sheriff’s department reached the appropriate rescue team.
“We started out with basic 911, then we had E-911,” Junior said. He noted that the current system allows calls to be routed to different jurisdictions, in the event that another communication center experiences downtime due to power failure or a similar emergency.
“Another thing that we had to establish was where everyone lived. The rural routes used to be 1 and 2, and nobody had addresses except the city and some of the towns,” Junior said. “We had a blank screen when we started, and we had to sit down and name every street, every highway every dead-end road.”
As signs were put up, people were given the opportunity to come up with names for their own street. “If they couldn’t come up with anything, we would give it one.”
Back then, people were reluctant to put numbers on their homes to establish their physical addresses, so that was another hurdle that the commission had to clear. “What helped us the most was the postal service. They worked with us to establish the numbers,” he said.
When the project were finished, Junior noted that other localities looked to the Twin Counties as they established their own emergency dispatching centers. “We had one of the best 911 regional systems in the state,” he told The Gazette.
Thanks to the group’s continued efforts and advances in technology, dispatchers have an even faster response time for their calls. They now use computers, maps and signals, which can help trace calls to a certain location in many instances. Cell phones have helped to locate people in distress in areas such as the New River Trail, and when there is no signal to track, dispatchers can still narrow down locations based on descriptions given by the caller.
“It’s there for efficiency, and you can’t beat being able to call and immediately have someone there in a matter of minutes. A lot of people have been helped, and a lot of lives have been saved,” Junior said.
The Twin County E-911 Regional Dispatch Center is located in the Harold Snead Public Safety Building at 353 North Main Street in Galax. All fire, rescue, and policy calls for the city, as well as Carroll County and Grayson County, are dispatched from this center.
Full-time communication officers are Jessica Slusher Adkins, Arvel Blevins, Tina Carico, Matthew Chappell, Sylvia Donithan, Dawn Jones, Margaret “Star” Jones, Michelle Newman, Elizabeth Price, Cheryl Privett, Cory Stuart, Tim Webb and Justin Wooten. The combined team has more than 136 years of experience.
In 2013, the team answered 19,726 emergency calls and dispatched and recorded 44,567 incidents.
“There are many peaks and valleys in C-Com,” said Jolena Young. “One minute there is nothing going on, and in the next instant all four stations are ringing non-stop, and you have 50 units out on calls all over the almost 100 miles of terrain that make up the [Twin County] area.”
Calls range from misdials to distraught family members or victims with life threatening emergencies, to multi-casualty incidents such as the I-77 Easter Sunday multiple vehicle crash in 2013.
“In all cases, the communication officer must remain calm and get the information needed from the caller to dispatch the appropriate first responders,” she said.
Jolena thanked both paid and volunteer fire, rescue and law enforcement first responders who respond to their dispatches.
“C-Com is also proud to work as a team with the communication officers at Carroll Sheriff’s Office, Grayson Sheriff’s Office and Virginia State Police who handle dispatch for county law enforcement. Emergency response truly is a team effort,” she said.