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Martinsville Bulletin, Inc.
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204 Broad Street
Martinsville, Virginia 24115
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Nonemergency calls distract 911 center

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer

From how to handle stink bugs to tips on cooking a turkey, the Martinsville-Henry County 911 Center has received calls about everything, and now it is embarking on a public education campaign, according to J.R. Powell, the agency’s executive director.

“We are trying to educate the public on how busy the 911 center is” in responding to emergency calls, Powell said.

And he hopes that residents will understand nonemergency calls detract and distract from the center’s purpose of serving those with a fire, rescue or police emergency.

In 2011, dispatchers answered 187,848 incoming calls and dispatched emergency personnel to a total of 82,068 incidents, including 70,675 law-enforcement calls; 9,250 medical calls and 2,144 fire calls.

Working in shifts of four, the 19 full-time dispatchers answer an average of 515 calls in each 24-hour time period, Powell said.

The center, which also includes a coordinator and an administrative communications supervisor, summons help from nine fire departments; six rescue squads, and three law enforcement agencies — city, county and state, he said.

Dispatchers also provide other services, such as monitoring flood-prone areas of the city and county, the effects of severe weather events and electric problems — including downed lines — for Appalachian Power Co., and the City of Martinsville, Powell said.

Also last year, dispatchers responded to 125,908 administrative calls, which includes the nonemergency calls.

“People call us when they don’t know who else to call,” he said.

Nonemergency calls generally come at inopportune times, such as when dispatchers are in the midst of helping those who may be experiencing life-threatening emergencies, Powell said.

For instance, a dispatcher recently answered the phone from a woman asking “what to do about stink bugs,” he said.

The dispatcher was in the middle of providing emergency services to other callers — one of whom was involved in a vehicle accident and the other who had a health emergency, Powell said.

The dispatcher suggested the woman call somewhere else for answers and abruptly disconnected the line, he said.

“Sometimes people don’t understand when dispatchers” are preoccupied with a real emergency and are abrupt, Powell said. “And unfortunately, this has been an ongoing” issue.

He shared a personal experience that occurred one Thanksgiving morning early on in his career with the 911 center.

Then, Powell said he received a call from an elderly-sounding woman who “said, ‘I know I don’t have an emergency, but I have a question.’”

Since there were no other callers at the time, Powell said he listened as the woman told him that she normally roasted her turkey in an open roasting pan, but wanted to prepare it in a cooking bag.

But the woman did not know how to use the bag, and “wondered how long she needed to cook the turkey in the bag. She was afraid she would cook it too long,” and ruin her family’s dinner, Powell said.

He suggested that she read the directions on the box which contained the bag, and then helped her calculate how long to cook the turkey.

While that call was an oddity, others are more routine, Powell said.

For instance, during inclement weather, dispatchers routinely receive calls from people asking about the road conditions between Martinsville and Roanoke, he said.

Those callers could easily contact the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) for that information, Powell said.

He hopes the public education campaign will encourage residents to “think it through” before calling the center for a non-emergency issue, because there are other places that may provide the information needed.

The center is “here to help” and wants to help, but its focus is on those who have a true emergency, he said.


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