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Six screens times six and superpowers: One night at the E-911 call center



Wanda Thomas works her station at the 911 call center

“Place your hand on her forehead, the other hand on her neck and tilt her head back. Look at her very carefully, OK? Can you see or hear any breathing?” Mikayla Colston asked the 911 caller the questions in a calm, measured tone.

If the words didn’t register, you would think a polite conversation was occurring.

“OK. Look at her very closely, and tell me exactly what you see her doing,” she continued.

Mikayla Colston talks a caller through an emergency situation.

On the other end of the phone, someone was experiencing what was likely one of the most stressful moments of their life. The calm, reasoned tone of the 911 operator is a trained voice designed to maximize the survival of the person being treated on the other end of the phone line.

While Colston was talking a caller through the first steps of assessing a victim, Wanda Thomas was dispatching fire, rescue and police to the scene.

Thomas was telling this reporter about a family member and stopped mid-sentence to dispatch rescuers. She picked up right where she left off after sending the first responders to the scene. Thomas explained that over the years of working at the 911 call center, she developed a superpower: She can hear conversations across the room while holding a conversation on her own and dispatching rescue units.

When things calmed down a bit, Hunter Ivey chimed in about how that superpower comes to you.

“You’ll be sitting in a restaurant, and you can hear every word said at a table across the room,” he said. “It’s weird.”

It is also a necessary skill in the call center. It combines the ability to talk calmly to the person on the line — who is often in a high-stress situation — while listening to hear if your partner dispatched the units while keeping the work atmosphere light and, as much as possible, jovial.

“OK. Stay right with her, OK? Make sure her head is tilted back and check her breathing often,” continued Colston. She was calm and assuring while she typed information on the condition of the patient into her computer. In the background, another operator was providing updates about the patient to first responders over the radio.

“I’ll stay on the line with you until help arrives,” Colston said “Tell me when the paramedics are right with her, OK?”

Walking into the main work room at the E-911 call center with all of its technology can be overwhelming. Computer screens are everywhere you look, and the amount of available information is staggering. On one screen are pending calls still being worked. On another bank of screens, you can see the views of numerous cameras set up around town. There are six work stations in the main room and each station has six screens, each designed to show information quickly as the operator juggles several tasks at once.

The operators have a script to follow that is adaptable to each situation and every input. The idea is to ensure operators ask the right questions and that a consistent set of information is gleaned on every call. Long after the call, an attorney might request the 911 tapes for a court proceeding. Having a consistent path of questions eliminates any hint of bias and ensures each caller is treated the same.

The workroom of the 911 call center looks like a Hollywood version of a war room — something straight out of a Jason Bourne movie. But it is right here in Warren County, and it provides residents with quick responses to their emergencies.

The technology is daunting, and it is constantly upgraded to ensure the stability of the system. Back up systems and backups to those backups are part of the design.

“When Katrina hit Mississippi in 2005, we learned our communications systems for emergency management were not up to standard,” said E-911 Call Center Director Shane Garrard.

Shane Garrard in his office at the 911 Call Center

Since that time, having communications centers equipped to operate during disasters has become a priority.

On this night the Police Task Force was on duty in Vicksburg. The task force, assigned by Mayor George Flaggs Jr., had a dozen officers, a watch commander and Deputy Chief Penny Jones patrolling the streets. Three 911 operators were on duty, and a fourth showed up around 8 p.m. to assist. Most of the time, one operator was working the calls. If a second call came in, the other three raced to get it. There was a lot of downtime between calls early in the evening.

“That child that I couldn’t save still sticks with me.” Vonnae Simmons said in a distant voice when asked about memorable calls. “It was a couple of years ago, but that is the call that sticks with me to this day. I can still hear the voice of the caller — their pain. It is still with me.”

The other operators continued with their duties while Simmons told her story and looked away before being asked about their memorable call.

Vonnae Simmons, Wanda Thomas, Mikayla Colston and Hunter Ivey work their stations in the 911 call center.

Thomas started picking on Ivey about nothing, and then Simmons got that smile and Colston smirked. The team works to keep the mood light, and this reporter asking dark questions was smoothly moved to the back burner.

“Get out of my ear,” Thomas said jokingly about a first responder interrupting her storytelling. She stopped talking long enough to respond to the radio message and went back to her story. “We snap, but we snap in here,” she said. “When we get those breaks we talk and joke and talk about radio traffic. It is part of it. I’m the queen of it.”

“Yep,” Ivey chimed in. “We work together. We are a team.”

At about 10:15 p.m. a call came in that required two of the operators to respond. A minute or so later, another call came in and a flurry of activity began. This team that works together was on the phone or radio non-stop. The tally board of open calls filled up quickly, and the jovial conversation turned to professional tones and dispatch talk.

“Adam 4, call dispatch. 10-4. Rescue on scene. Fire Medic 20 starting mileage is zero point zero,” could be heard among the jumble of voices.

And then, as quickly as it started up, the calls stopped and everyone had finished their tasks. The whirlwind of intense activity had lasted 45 minutes.

“That was 45 minutes?” asked Ivey. “Hmph. Didn’t realize it.”

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