Lifelines serving Suffolk

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 30, 2002

The Emergency Communications Division at the Suffolk Police Department is one of the toughest places in the city in which to work. The large room has no windows and it’s dimly lit at all times. Added to that, the stress would quickly drive some people to a therapist. Top all that off with the fact that hardly a day passes without some type of life-or-death drama thrown at the 21 emergency communications operators. Yet, these people actually live for this impossibly unique job.

Police Sergeant John J. Marx serves as commanding officer over all these people, and his job is just as tough as it gets. People in Suffolk, and sometimes in surrounding areas, depend on this man’s job knowledge and ability to make sure the emergency operators receive proper training to function as a &uot;lifeline&uot; to civilians and police officers as well. He must also see to it that the latest in technology is available to the communications division and that &uot;his people&uot; are properly trained on all the newest procedures and equipment.

Even though he served 15 years as an investigator for Suffolk Police, Marx would agree this is one of the toughest assignments he’s had in his 26 years with the department.

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The Communications Bureau in Suffolk was established in 1990, serving not just police but also fire and rescue communiqus in the city. Prior to that year, fire and the Nansemond-Suffolk Volunteer Rescue Squad each handled their own communications with dispatchers for each agency.

&uot;Back before 1990, you dialed seven digit telephone numbers to get through to any agency and you could get a busy signal,&uot; said Marx. &uot;With the establishment of the communications division, you dial &uot;911&uot; and it goes into the center and there’s never a busy signal and a dispatcher answers immediately. They handle every call from the center, sending out police, fire or rescue, whatever help is needed.&uot;

The center consists of one large room and entering the area brings to mind, &uot;Star Wars,&uot; where computers glowed with information, lights constantly brought attention to every minute detail of operating a starship.

Entering the room, the quiet of the area is deceptive because there are actually events taking place that are indiscernible to the eye. The eyes also must adjust to lack of light inside the room.

&uot;The lights must be kept low so that they don’t reflect off the monitor screens,&uot; said Marx. &uot;A light glare would make it more difficult to read the information on the screens.&uot;

The room has a hub, or circle in which the bank of computers is stationed. The 911 operators sit in front of the monitors, keyboards and other electronic equipment.

Quietly, the operators are constantly responding to an unending stream of calls that come in 24-hours a day, seven days a week. While there are times when there is a lull in communications traffic, most of the time the operators barely have time to take a deep breath. One minute they may send a rescue squad or paramedics for a nosebleed, the next minute they may be handling a life or death situation.

&uot;Sometimes we have a little bit of downtime, but also at the drop of a hat the bottom could fall out,&uot; said Marx. &uot;These communications operators handle a tremendous number of calls each and every day.&uot;

The communications center handles calls for Suffolk’s 436 square miles, sending and receiving information to the city’s 155 sworn police officers and fire and rescue personnel and volunteers. Conversations between citizens, the 911 operators, and public safety personnel are all relayed from towers that send signals across the landscape of Suffolk.

&uot;This system sends and receives signals that enable our dispatchers, the 911 operators, to talk with police, fire, and rescue personnel and the people who call in requests for help,&uot; he said. &uot;Our officers and other public safety personnel could not do their job without the 911 communications.&uot;

With 55,000 people now counted as residents of Suffolk, 911 operators handle an average of 230,000 calls a year, and with the population of the city steadily increasing, that number is rising.

There are usually five operators on duty on each of the three shifts each day and each is highly trained, able to handle anything coming across the 911 computers and phone lines. Operators work the fire and rescue &uot;sides&uot; of the communications room, while others man the consoles on the police non-emergency channel used to run license checks on vehicles.

&uot;It’s not like an operator has to do it all, and they rotate on their duties,&uot; said Marx. &uot;Today, one may be working police and fire calls and tomorrow, that same person may be on the non-emergency communications. They must know at all times exactly what to do in any given situation. They are involved in a constant learning process where they demonstrate every day exactly what they have learned.&uot;

Marx said the public’s safety is of primary importance within that large communications room. He said each of the operators is skillful at asking the right questions of a person calling for help of any kind.

&uot;Sometimes people get aggravated with the operators because they are asking questions, but it is imperative that they take as much information about a given situation as possible in order to help them as expeditiously and effectively as possible. There have been times when people would get angry and yell and curse the operators because of the questions.&uot;

As Marx said, his people are highly skilled at handling any situation, even when a caller verbally abuses them.

&uot;We realize that people are in a state of emergency and they can get extremely agitated,&uot; he said. &uot;Still, our operators maintain professionalism and remain calm and collected in order to help the caller. It’s a challenging task but it’s also one our people are up to and they face it each and every day.&uot;

Along with training in how to handle themselves under such extreme circumstances, the dispatchers of 911 participate in continuing education.

&uot;They are trained yearly in emergency medical dispatch, CPR and they’re trained on the Virginia Criminal Education Network, and how to run &uot;wants and warrants’ checks on vehicles and people sought after by the law,&uot; Marx added. &uot;They are constantly updated on changes in rules and regulations and the law, changes in the equipment public safety personnel uses, and they participate constantly in specialized schools that enhance their capabilities as an emergency response operator. It’s difficult to get all this training and their job is a very, very stressful operation.&uot;

He said it’s been exciting to see the changes in emergency communications over the years he’s served the department.

&uot;To see one of our dispatchers work in a situation, say a robbery, is amazing,&uot; said Marx. &uot;You see her answer the call, take information from the caller and then begin to share it with the proper public safety agency, and also with other dispatchers to keep everyone apprised of what’s going on is truly beautiful. Everyone must be aware of the calls so that if the need arises, they could step in and take over at any moment. These people are dedicated and devoted to serving the public as well as public safety personnel and there are many times when they’re the lifeline between the caller and emergency assistance. To see all this, and to know that when it’s all over they done a great job is just a wonderful experience.&uot;

Marx stands as commanding officer over the communications division but he’s not one to walk softly and carry a big stick. He’s well thought of by his teams of dispatchers and he admits that he’s always ready with as much praise as corrective criticism.

&uot;To come in here every day like they do, we cannot overlook these people in our daily lives,&uot; he said. &uot;They are just as important as police, fire and rescue personnel. I know because I have been on the receiving end of their communications, where as an officer or investigator, I’ve needed their assistance. They just do a supreme job, no matter the call.&uot;

Marx added that stress in the center is unbelievable. As he said, they work around the clock, giving up holidays and other special family times to be of service to citizens of Suffolk and public safety personnel.

&uot;We put these people in that room with no windows, to keep down glare, and they’re in there handling calls that could mean life or death,&uot; said the sergeant. &uot;Tell me that’s not stressful!&uot;

Earlier this year, Emergency Operator Jean B. Smith was named &uot;Dispatcher of the Year&uot; at a banquet honoring all emergency responders across Hampton Roads. However, as Marx sees it, each of the operators would have that designation were it up to him.

&uot;When I came to communications I was worried because I’d never done it before,&uot; he said. &uot;I learned right along with these dispatchers, however, that while this is one of the most challenging jobs I’ve ever held, it is also one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. I truly enjoy seeing these people in what they do for the public. They are hidden away in the center, the public never sees them and there are many times when they save a life and yet they are never recognized or thanked other than receiving their pay. These people work hard at making sure the public receives nothing but their best. When you call 911, you talk with these people and their mission is to provide the best emergency response as possible.&uot;