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E-911 communications officers face emotional challenges
A communications officer keeps a close eye on multiple computer screens at the Effingham County E-911 Call Center on Thursday. - photo by Mark Lastinger/staff

SPRINGFIELD — E-911 communications officers have lots of questions. The unanswered ones often linger in their minds.

Did the choking baby survive? Did the heart attack victim make it? Is the battered girlfriend OK?

The job has plenty of downs and the depth of the unknown can be painful.

A communications officer’s day, which consists of a 12-hour shift, might start with the report of a car break-in. The next call could be from a frantic woman whose husband or child isn’t breathing.

“They get so many horrendous calls,” Effingham County E-911 Director Jay Spinks said. “Their line of work is an emotional roller-coaster ride.”

Effingham County’s E-911 communications officers work in a dimly lit room at 181 Recycle Way. The darkness takes a little of the tension off high-pressure calls.

“We get to talk to people on the screaming side and a lot of times (the communications officers) are the calming voice,” Spinks said. “They do an amazing job.”

E-911’s mission is to improve the qualify of life for the citizens, businesses and visitors of Effingham County by serving as a communications bridge between those who are in need of public safety assistance and those who provide the service in a timely and accurate manner.

“They are the forgotten ones,” Spinks said. “They are the voice behind the radio. They don’t get to go out on the scene.
“A lot of times they don’t get the follow-up.”

In addition to sometimes not knowing the outcomes of situations they encounter, communications officers are frequently pained by the knowledge that their voice is the last one some callers ever hear.

“We’ve actually had them to die on the phone with us,” Spinks said. “A lot of times it’s with respiratory-related calls — emphysema patients, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) or what have you — but to hear that person actually pass while they are on the phone with you ...

"(Communications officers) go through the motions, they do what they are trained to do but, after they hang up, if they need to fall apart, by all means, fall apart.”

A nearby “quiet room” provides an oasis from the unpleasantness. It features a large couch and a TV that will show only comedy programs.

“It’s a play where they can cry, cuss, scream, pray or whatever they have to do,” Spinks said. “They can go into that dark, quiet room, close the door and decompress. Not all call centers have that and, even still, some of my dispatchers are flirting with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) because they see so much.”

See the May 16 edition of the Effingham Herald for this rest of this story

On May 23, look for a special section entitled "Honoring Our First Responders: Heroes on the Homefront." It will feature another story about Effingham County E-911 and other local public safety agencies.