Vickroy: When chaos comes calling, they answer
By Donna Vickroy email@example.com Twitter: @dvickroy August 9, 2013 5:22PM
Erin Skelly (foreground) works dispatch while Cindy Margulin takes calls at the E-COM 911 Dispatch Center in the Southland. | Donna Vickroy~Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 12, 2013 6:19AM
When Angela Kramer heard breaking glass, followed by screams and then gunshots about 3 a.m. March 2, 2010, she took cover in a closet of her family’s Darien home and called 911 — from her cellphone.
The dispatcher who took that call stayed on the phone with Kramer for more than an hour.
“I debriefed that dispatcher,” said Jeanine Chiappano, executive director of the E-COM 9-1-1 Dispatch Center in the south suburbs and a peer stress debriefer. “After that call, the dispatcher had been having difficulties — throwing up and calling in sick. She just needed to talk about it, to get some closure.”
The Darien case — Johnny Borizov recently received three life sentences for orchestrating the murders of Angela’s parents and younger brother — illustrates two important points: how critical the role of call takers and dispatchers is, and how much a more advanced emergency call system is needed.
Chiappano said E-COM, which serves Flossmoor, Glenwood, Homewood, Hazel Crest, Riverdale and South Holland, will be installing a new VIPER system in the next few months, in preparation for the state’s rollout of Next Generation 9-1-1 technology.
NG911 would move emergency communications beyond telephone technology, incorporating mobile phones and other Internet-enabled devices and services, including Skype and VoIP, into a more modern, more relevant system. It is a nationwide undertaking, embraced by both the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Communications Commission.
According to a national report released last month, 71 percent of 911 calls across the country were made from wireless devices in 2011.
The new technology will enable call centers to receive text and video messages, as well as pinpoint with better accuracy the location of a person calling from a cellphone. It will also make call transfers from one center to another more efficient and enable centers to better serve the hearing-impaired community, Chiappano said.
Though Chiappano does not know exactly when the new system will be online, she expects it to be soon.
“Illinois is working on it. We’re making accommodations so that when the state is ready, we’ll be ready,” she said. Larger consolidated centers such as E-COM can weather the costs of implementation easier than small, single-town Public Safety Answering Points, she said, because they can pool resources and money.
“A lot of the smaller PSAPs don’t have the funding for the new equipment,” she said.
The more centralized centers also can staff both call takers and dispatchers simultaneously, enabling call takers to spend more time on calls, culling information and offering assistance, as they feed data to the dispatchers who then reach out to police and fire.
The new system will enable call takers to better pinpoint a cell caller’s location, as well as translate wireless data onto a visual map.
“It really makes sense these days when so many people are calling from cellphones and using text messages to communicate,” she said.
Currently, when a cellphone call comes in, the location of the nearest cell tower comes up. Then the GPS is employed to try to hone in on the exact address. Smartphones provide better accuracy. Pay-as-you-go phones are almost useless in determining where a person is calling from, she said.
“Right now, if you try to text us, you will get a return text message saying the service is not available,” she said.
Even after the new system is up and running, Chiappano said, emergency personnel still will recommend that people call instead of text during a crisis. Having a person on the phone enables the call taker to not only get additional information, but to impart important information, such as that officers are en route, or CPR instructions.
But if a person is unable to call safely, perhaps because of a domestic violence situation or because a perpetrator is nearby, being able to text could be a lifesaver.
A lifeline during crisis
“Just about every call taker here has either helped deliver a baby or given CPR instructions over the phone,” said Mark Swider, E-COM’s deputy director.
“All of our call takers and dispatchers are certified in EMD (emergency medical dispatch),” Swider said.
Cindy Margulin has been a call taker for 35 years. She’s helped deliver twins over the phone and just last week kept a caller calm while police searched for the woman’s missing 2-year-old.
“It almost brought me to tears because the woman told me she lived near the expressway and near water,” Margulin said.
While officers searched outside, Margulin talked with the caller as she searched inside the home.
“She found the little girl under some blankets,” Margulin said. “Everybody here cheered.”
That was a good day, or moment. Swider recalls one caller who was shot and killed while on the phone with a call taker.
“It’s not always easy,” he said.
Margulin was also working the March day in 2010 when Homewood firefighter Brian Carey was killed while trying to rescue an elderly man trapped by a house fire.
“I was the call taker; I heard the mayday,” she said.
So did Erin Skelly, who was working dispatch at the time.
“It was the worst of the worst; worst call, worst outcome,” Skelly said.
“At those times you realize how important training is, and how important it is to work well with your co-workers,” Skelly said. “It’s very hard to be involved in a call like that and then just hang up and move on to the next call. But you have to.”
Ports in a storm
Chiappano said call takers and dispatchers “are the first first responders.”
So much is riding on a call taker’s ability to get complete and accurate information from a caller in distress.
“We do that by talking calmly, asking questions and repeating their name,” Margulin said.
Swider said it typically takes a person five years to determine if they absolutely love the job or absolutely hate it.
But even those who embrace it say the stress of spending your day with people in crisis can be overwhelming.
“It’s a continuous workflow,” said Michele Zander, who’s been at the job for 19 years. “Bad car accidents, structure fires and police foot pursuits really get your adrenaline going.
“I‘ve learned that when I walk out that door, I have to leave the job here,” Zander said. “The only time I let it interrupt my home life is when that pager goes off.”
The phone workers also spend considerable time dealing with prank calls. About 20 percent of the 135,000 calls that came into E-COM last year were hang-ups.
“Most of the time it’s a misdial or kids playing with their parents’ phone,” Chiappano said. “But every time it happens, we have to call back to verify that everything is OK. It’s very time-consuming.”
Skelly does public outreach, visiting schools and community centers to educate people about the 911 system, and emphasize the importance of caller accuracy.
“It’s especially important in towns that border Chicago, because people who once lived in Chicago are used to dialing 311 in an emergency,” she said.
Skelly studied art in college.
“Then I got this job and knew, without a doubt, that I could do it and do it well,” she said.
Sure, it’s tough, she said, “But I love catching the bad guys. I love finding missing children. We are the one to keep structure in an environment that is chaos. When it all comes together, it’s a great feeling.”
For more information on NG911, visit www.911.gov/ or www.nena.org/?page=NextGen911Caucus