SPRINGFIELD — For most people, 911 is a series of numbers on the telephone. But in an out-of-the-way building in Effingham County is a team of people that serves as the first link to help in a crisis.
The Effingham County 911 Call Center is the nerve center of the county when it comes to handling emergencies and dispatching first responders to the scene. When the recent tornado devastated Bryan County, it was on the job, taking calls and alerting the Bryan County Call Center as well as first responders in the area.
Director Jay Spinks said, “You know the 911 dispatchers, they’re sitting at their consoles, they come in, get ready for their 12-hour shifts, they sit down — on one side of them they have the radio console full of 16 channels they have to monitor on a daily basis for 12 hours and in a major event, a major crisis such as a hurricane, automatically those 16 channels go to 32 channels they have to start monitoring.”
Most of those “extra” channels are part of the National Incident Management System. On those channels, 911 employees can talk to any officer from any surrounding county.
An incident such as the recent Bryan County tornado is a prime example.
“Thank goodness we were spared here in Effingham County,” Spinks said. “We had very little wind damage. Of course, we had to set off the sirens in Rincon since they’re the only municipality in the county that has sirens at this time.”
Spinks said there were reports of up to golf ball sized-hail but there were very few reports of damage. He said the Bryan County first responders did a great job of handling the tornado emergency.
The 911 director added that while they did get some calls from Effingham County citizens wondering if the tornado was a threat to them, that number was small because many were able to see the storm track on local television or the internet and that took a lot of the pressure off the 911 Call Center.
On a typical day, the 911 team comes in and gets a debriefing from the night shift. Then it starts its phone tests and brings up the CAD system at each of its stations, making sure all the equipment is working and then the members start taking calls as they come in.
Now dispatchers can tell a caller’s location within just a few feet, which is vital in the case of a child or incapacitated person. When cell phones were first becoming popular back in the late 1990s and early 2000’s, a dispatcher could only tell the phone number, or at the most, the nearest tower.
Aiding in this capability is “Rapid SOS,” a free service to 911 agencies. They have worked with that system for nearly three years..
The 911 Call Center has a staff of 16, with four to a 12-hour shift. They work two days and then are off two days. It will have a staff of 19 once it fills all its positions.
The 12-hour shifts are based on those that law enforcement agencies usually work.
In Effingham County, 911 was first implemented in 1993 in the sheriff’s office. As the county started to grow and calls for service followed suit, the Effingham County Board of Commissioners decided to build the current 911 building which was started in 2008. It began dispatching out of it in June 2009.
Adding texting to the 911 service is on the horizon. Spinks said the call center is already equipped for it and it just waiting for the local service providers to get ready.
He said progress was impeded by the COVID pandemic.
“Hopefully this time next year we’ll be up and running,” Spinks said.
The majority of calls coming in for 2021 were respiratory related due to COVID. Anxiety calls were also increasing at that time.
“People were afraid — the unknown,” Spinks said.
Anxiety manifested in a rapid heartbeat and shortness of breath.
Spinks said 911 workers no longer have to wear masks since they function as a family internally, not interfacing with the public.
People interested in applying to be part of this vital service can do so at www.Effinghamcounty.org. At the bottom of the site, click on “Jobs” to see what’s available and “911 Communications Officer” is listed.
Currently there are two full-time vacancies to be filled. The director said that because of the nature of the job.
Dispatchers are hard to find. Spinks said the typical applicant is a type-A personality — a take-charge person. He said the job basically is to take phone calls — many times from someone who is having the “worst day of their life” —and calmly doing all you can to get people en route to help them.
An applicant doesn’t have to have a particular work background as training is provided.