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Telecommunicators — the voice of emergency services

Each year, the second full week of April is earmarked as a time to express thanks and appreciation for public safety telecommunicators.  

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics defines public safety telecommunicators as those who operate communication systems at 911 and other emergency centers. Telecommunicators, sometimes known as dispatchers, gather information from callers regarding public safety matters, then relay that information to appropriate emergency response personnel to respond.  At times, they also offer aid or instructions to callers while waiting for the arrival of dispatched emergency services. 

In short, they are the “first” first responders, the voice of emergency services.  

Every time a telecommunicator answers the phone, there is the possibility of a life-threatening situation on the other end of the line.  Regardless of the severity of the caller’s emergency, telecommunicators must be able to stay calm, communicate clearly and act quickly with accuracy, speed, and emotional control. 

“It’s a stressful job,” Brad Wilson, assistant director of Monongalia County Emergency Management Agency (MECCA) said.  “You could go from sitting there and literally not doing anything to having 40 car wrecks — especially if you have a snow squall come through. It can get busy in there very fast, and they do a wonderful job of trying to maintain all that at one time.”   

MECCA, which employs 26 telecommunicators and five administrators, serves as the hub of Monongalia County emergency communication and answers all emergency and non-emergency public safety calls for the entire county. 

According to Wilson, the agency takes an average of 200,000 calls a year. 

Operating 24 hours a day with employees spread across three shifts, Wilson said each shift — generally four or five people — could answer upwards of 250 calls a day. 

“We are not a normal business … ” Wilson explained. “We don’t close for holidays. We are open on Christmas Day. It’s tough to get people who actually want to work that kind of a shift, but once they do, they are very dedicated at it.”

Star City Police Chief Jessica Colebank, who began her law enforcement career as a dispatcher in Fairmont, said it takes people with special skills to work as a telecommunicator. 

“They are the voice that we need to hear, and that the community needs to hear, in an emergency,” Colebank said. “They have to stay calm, collected and be very knowledgeable about pretty much everything that a first responder has to know.  

“They need to be able to get us there quickly with directions. They’ve got to try to calm people down and they have to have the same skills as police and EMS with giving first aid over the phone even though they can’t see them,” she said. “That’s even harder to try to talk someone through something instead of doing it yourself. It takes a special skill to be able to do that.” 

Within minutes, a dispatcher could receive a prank call, a cute call from a little kid playing with a phone, and a call from a parent screaming that his or her child is not breathing.  

“So, you have to be able to flip that switch very quickly every time the phone rings,” Colebank said. “So that also takes a special skill to do that.” 

In Mon County, Wilson said MECCA telecommunicators receive training on several aspects of emergency response including dispatching and medical courses and obtain required certifications that need to be re-certified every two years. 

Without the vital role of telecommunicators, emergency services would be a lot more chaotic. Colebank said the 911 emergency line was originally created so people did not have to call different numbers for different emergency services. 

“It’s important because you don’t need to know your local number to get help — you just need 911,” she said. 

While knowing the number to call is the biggest step, it is also important to understand the job the telecommunicator is trying to do. 

“A lot of people don’t quite understand the person taking the call may be asking you a lot of questions,” Wilson said — but talking to you doesn’t mean they are not sending help. 

It is important to know “the call is getting dispatched, and people are on the way,” Wilson explained,  
“but the person on the phone has to ask the questions to get the right information so we can make sure we have the right type of equipment coming to your call and the right personnel.” 

Colebank said community members should try to have the same level of patience with dispatchers as dispatchers do with the community. 

“Sometimes in a high-stress situation people scream and you can’t understand what they are saying and that can be very frustrating,” Colebank explained. “The best advice is to take a breath if you can and then say what you need to say, because if we can’t understand what you are saying, we can’t send help to where you’re at, because we don’t know what you need and where you are.” 

Without the hard-working telecommunicators at MECCA, public safety in Mon County would certainly look a lot different, Morgantown’s head law enforcement official said.

“We want to thank all of our dispatch team members for their professionalism and hard work,” Morgantown Police Chief Eric Powell said. “During times of extreme stress and uncertainty, they are the ones at the forefront, providing empathy, support, and outstanding customer service to our citizens. We could not do what we do as an emergency response team without them.” 

Colebank added “I appreciate everything that they do, and I am glad they are there for us.” 

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