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EMD program changes roles for dispatchers
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Susan Mason sits in the Martinsville-Henry County 911 center, where she has worked for 14 years. Dispatchers now can give scripted instructions to help callers in emergency situations. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)

Friday, April 19, 2013

By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer

It is stressful and hectic, but Susan Mason can’t imagine working anywhere but in the Martinsville-Henry County 911 Center.

Mason, a 14-year dispatcher, said the job is rewarding, especially because of one call that sticks with her.

The call came in after the center implemented the Emergency Medical Dispatch (EMD) program in October, she said.

As part of that program, and after completing the required medical training, dispatchers can give scripted instructions to help people in emergency and/or life threatening situations before an ambulance arrives at the scene.

“Until then, we were not allowed to give pre-arrival instructions. It was frustrating for me because I was an EMT (emergency medical technician) already,” Mason said.

“One of my first calls after we started” the EMD program was from a son calling because his father — a Collinsville businessman — needed help, she said. “One of our first questions is ‘Are they breathing normally?’”

The son said his father may not be breathing at all, Mason recalled.

From that and answers to other questions, Mason said she suspected the man was suffering a heart attack. She asked the son “if he would like to do CPR” (cardiopulmonary resuscitation, which is often needed when someone is suffering cardiac arrest) on his father.

The son told Mason he did not know CPR. “I told him if he wanted to do it, I could talk him through it,” she said.

Using her directions, the son performed CPR on his father “until rescue arrived on the scene,” Mason said.

J.R. Powell, director of the 911 center, said rescue crews arrived about four minutes later and took over with CPR. “They were able to get a pulse back and the gentleman survived,” Powell said.

“I’m so glad we got the EMD program,” Mason said. She added that her job “is stressful, but it is very rewarding. It’s very rewarding knowing that quite possibly, I had something to do with him being alive today.”

Sharon Harold, an assistant shift supervisor with five years on the job, said no single call stands out in her mind. Rather, what she enjoys most about her job is helping the elderly and children.

“My heart goes out to these people because they are not able to take care of themselves and” especially in emergency situations, they “don’t have a caretaker” to help, Harold said. “You can always tell people who don’t have anybody, and we all go a little bit extra to help them. It helps us all feel good.”

For instance, one elderly woman often called because she was unable to open her medications, had no family in the area and no on else to help, she said.

She worked with law enforcement officers who often went by and opened the medicine for the woman, Harold said.

“When we have children calling, a lot of times they don’t realize the seriousness” of the situation, and “sometimes are our best callers,” Harold said.

Young callers “are so calm or don’t understand the seriousness or how bad a situation can go,” she added.

The job offers “something new just about every day. Sometimes, we do talk to the same people but it’s always something different,” Harold said. “I’m fortunate because I have the luxury of working with good people, enjoying my job and having interaction with the community.”

She also said Powell is dedicated to the post and to dispatchers there.

Residents “are very gracious” and most always thank Harold and other dispatchers for their help, she said. “Those two little words are reward enough.”

Harold, Mason, and the 15 other full-time dispatchers collectively handle more than 174,000 calls each year, Powell said.

That is about 9,200 calls per dispatcher annually and is nearly double the national average, he said, adding that there also are three support staff — including Powell — who can answer calls if needed.

The Henry County Board of Supervisors on Monday approved a resolution to participate in the April 14-20 National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, Powell said.

“This is a special time each year to honor men and women across the nation who wear the headset as a 911 emergency dispatcher,” Powell said. Dispatchers “provide a valuable service as first responders.” This week is set aside “to say thank you to 911 dispatchers ... for doing what they do.”


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