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A quiet respite in the storm
Dedicated area provides 911 operators with place to find calm
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Effingham County 911 Director Jay Spinks, left, and EMA Director Ed Myrick have a discussion in the quiet room adjacent to the countys emergency operations center. The room gives 911 dispatchers and call-takers a designated area where they can wind down after handling stressful calls. - photo by Photo by Paul Floeckher

As a firefighter, Brooke Dicks can have intense work days.

Even so, she can’t imagine being a 911 call-taker or dispatcher.

“They have a very, very stressful job,” Dicks said. “I get to run and do (in an emergency); they basically have to sit and stay calm and give us direction. That has to be so stressful not being able to just run out the door and go to it.”

Effingham County 911 dispatchers and call-takers now have a designated area where they can wind down after handling stressful calls. With Dicks’ assistance, the Effingham County Emergency Management Agency office was equipped last year with a “quiet room.”

The room, adjacent to the emergency operations center, is outfitted with comfortable furniture and soft lighting. It also has a television, with several “I Love Lucy” shows available to watch.

“They need to come in here and decompress, unwind, get out of that noisy dispatch room, to get away from it for a while,” said Effingham County 911 Director Jay Spinks. “I’d rather for them to deal with it here than to take it home to their family.”

Effingham Emergency Management Director Ed Myrick tasked Dicks with asking local furniture stores to donate items for the quiet room. Dicks was on light duty with the fire department while she was pregnant, and she was assigned to EMA as Myrick’s assistant.

Two Rincon stores didn’t hesitate to help. Farmers Home Furniture donated a sectional sofa, chair and TV stand and Wiley’s Home Center gave tables and lamps, fully furnishing the quiet room.

“When she said what it was for, we were on-board,” said Farmers Furniture store manager Selena Moore. “You never know when you might have to use those services. I don’t think there’s a dollar figure you can put on that job.”

Myrick was inspired to create the quiet room after seeing the movie “The Call,” in which Halle Berry plays a 911 operator, and being on the scene of one of Effingham’s worst traffic crashes in memory. Three brothers died in November 2013 when their pickup collided with a tanker truck on Highway 17 and both vehicles burst into flames.

“After watching that movie, and the tanker explosion, I talked with Jay and said, ‘This is what I’d like to do,’” Myrick said. “We handed it to Brooke, and she ran with it.”

The tanker tragedy was the first call Dicks responded to for EMA rather than as a firefighter. Though she was unable to don turnout gear and fight the fire, she viewed her role with emergency management as a different way to help the community.

“Even though it wasn’t the fire department, it was a branch of emergency services,” Dicks said. “It really gave me something to look forward to possibly when I can’t really run into burning buildings anymore but still want to work with the emergency services side of public service.”

Effingham County 911 received 23,000 calls in 2013, an average of 63 per day, according to Spinks. Many of those calls resulted in multiple emergency and law enforcement agencies responding, he said.

Spinks described a 911 call-taker’s 12-hour shift as “an emotional roller-coaster ride.”

“You may start out with a sick child, you might start out with a bad domestic,” he said. “It goes from someone calling in, ‘I’ve locked my keys in my car,’ back up to, ‘My husband just shot himself in the head.’ It’s constantly up and down.”

Establishing the quiet room supplemented a grant Effingham EMA received from the Georgia Emergency Management Agency to upgrade its emergency operations center. The grant funded equipment such as monitors, projectors, projector screens and wiring to give Effingham a high-tech EOC.

Myrick said the EOC was basically “just a classroom” when he was named emergency management director in 2012. With the new equipment, the EOC is an information center with a steady stream of weather reports, GEMA updates, news stories and communication among county agencies.

“If something happened today, I know that we are prepared,” Myrick said.

At the same time, Myrick said, Effingham EMA improved its emergency response plans. The county is now in line with an incentive program the state offers to emergency management agencies that have designated plans and programs in place. EMAs that meet the guidelines would receive an additional 2.5 percent in funding in the event of a state-declared disaster.

“Two-and-a-half percent of $40 million is a lot of money,” Myrick said. “Of the 159 counties in the state of Georgia, only 33 counties have met that requirement – and we are one of them.”

While emergency management is highly visible to the public during severe weather or other type of emergency, Myrick pointed out that much of the agency’s work — such as the EOC upgrades — is conducted behind the scenes.

“Emergency management is like the spare tire in your car,” he said. “You don’t need it every day, but when you need it on that dark road, you’re going to be glad you have it.”