The “first” first responders: Celebrating 911 dispatchers

Published 10:00 am Wednesday, April 17, 2024

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Most people don’t remember the voice on the other side of the line when they get into a wreck or there’s a fire or there’s a burglary. In the face of that panic, how would you remember? 

But 911 dispatchers are an integral and foundational part of the emergency response team in a community, and this week (April 14-20) is dedicated to taking the time to thank those women and men who serve during emergencies and natural disasters all year round.

To celebrate the week, Chambers County Communications dispatchers are dressing up for PJ day, rock & roll day, beach attire day and favorite team day. The community is encouraged to bring handwritten notes or cards, small gift cards or gift baskets. Chambers County 911 Communications Supervisor Darlene Billingsley has spent all year planning and decorating the communications center on a theme for each day. This year’s theme is “This is How We Rock and Roll.”

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“I try to do something fun for them,” Billingsley said.. 

There are 16 dispatchers at the Chambers County communications center. Last year, the center had 29,875 inbound 911 calls for the whole county. 

That includes police, fire and animal control. Here in the country, many of those are cows in the road or pot belly pigs that got loose, Billingsley said. 

However, other calls are for emergent vehicle accidents, fires, natural disasters like the storms last March and many more. 

The communications center recently added a new feature called “Texty,” where people can text 911 if they are in a situation where they can’t speak or make noise. As long as they stay connected, the communications center can track their movements and get a law enforcement officer to them. This feature was used 1,632 times last year. 

With over 40 years of experience, Billingsley said a lot has changed since she first started the job, and technology is the biggest thing. The center has a mapping program that allows them to track callers who are on the move or unsure of their location. 

They also have a translator line for callers who don’t speak English called Lang Line. Last year, the Lang Line logged 4,647 minutes of use from callers. 

“Technology has just grown so much,” Billingsley said. “And our state Alabama Board has gone above and beyond and making sure we get a lot of this stuff. They are on top of everything.”

Even with all that technology, the job can be very overwhelming. Billingsley said there were 72,659 CAD (Computer Aided Dispatch) system entries last year, which is the system where all the law enforcement dispatching happens. 

Despite having so much to do around the county, Billingsley said they are often the unseen and unrecognized members of emergency response.

“We’re the very first person that they come in contact with,” Billingsley said.

In 2022, the Alabama legislature officially approved recognizing 911 dispatchers as first responders, which gives them benefits and discounts to things like health insurance and retirement funds just like any other emergency responder. 

Before that, they were considered clerical work. 

“I didn’t think I would see that in my career so I’m very excited,” Billingsley said.

Not only can the workload be tiring but also the callers can often be rude or unhelpful. Billingsley recalled getting hateful calls from people who wouldn’t listen or insisted on using hateful terms. 

“It takes a special kind of person to do this job,” Billingsley said. 

That’s why it’s nice to have a week when the dispatchers are recognized for their hard work. Billingsley said the local law agencies try to make a big deal out of the holiday. This year, the Chambers County Sheriff’s Office brought insulated bags and umbrellas to the dispatchers to thank them for all their hard work behind the scenes. 

The 911/EMA center also receives support from local businesses and companies in the area like McDonald’s, Caesar’s Pizza and the Chambers County Development Authority. 

They also get requests for visits from the career fairs and elementary schools in the county. The schools participate in the Adopt-A-Dispatcher campaign. Dispatchers visit classrooms and read to the students. Often, they come away with a gift basket or care package.