COVINGTON - In an emergency, people rely on a swift response from EMTs, firefighters and law enforcement.
But not everyone may stop and think about the people who work behind the scenes and play just as important a role in saving lives: communications officers who handle 911 calls.
Communications officers are the lifeline for public safety, connecting people in peril with the help they need.
Though they often aren't given due credit, communications officers across the nation, including those at the Covington-Newton County 911 Communications Center, are being honored this week.
At the urging of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials, Congress has recognized the importance of 911 education and declared April 13 through 19 National Public Safety Telecommunications Week and the month of April is National 911 Education Month.
Mike Smith, director of the local 911 center, said the public may not realize just how much his employees do.
"I've done a lot of things in my public safety career ... but I can fairly say that this is probably the most difficult job in public safety," Smith said. "It's not the most dangerous job, obviously, but it's different because of the multi-tasking involved."
The Covington-Newton County 911 Communications Center provides services for all public safety agencies in Newton County and its five municipalities, handling more than 20,000 calls per month.
Whether it's a life-threatening emergency, a security alarm sounding off or an agitated motorist who's locked his keys in his car, communications officers answer the call and notify the appropriate public safety department.
"I always say they are the true first responders, the first people you talk to when you reach out for help," Smith said.
In addition to answering all 911 calls, communications officers monitor the field unit's radio traffic, respond to individual requests from the field unit and answer non-emergency lines.
Often, they have to converse with the person making the call and the responding public safety officers at the same time.
It's not surprising then, that 911 centers nationwide are struggling to hire employees who can handle the job.
"A lot of people think it's a switchboard operation and it's far from that," Smith said.
The local 911 center has 25 budgeted positions, including supervisors, who work 12-hour shifts. Typically, four or five people are on duty per shift.
Communications officers go through a three-month in-house training program and work alongside a supervisor for the first year of their employment.
Erin Ruppel, who has worked at the 911 Center since 1999, said it's hard to explain what keeps her on the job, but she thinks it may be a higher calling.
"I just tell people it's like an ER. It's not an optimal job for a doctor to work in the ER, but those who do work in the ER feel like that's where they're supposed to be," Ruppel said.
Katie Quinn, who's been on the job four years, agreed.
"I wanted to do something that I felt would make a difference in people's lives," said Quinn, who works part-time at the center and full time as an EMT in Macon.
The most challenging part of the job, Quinn said, is "dealing with so much at the same time."
"We may be talking to an officer on the radio and talking to a citizen on the phone. People don't always realize we're doing that at the same time," she said.
But, the reward is helping someone in need.
"When the fire truck or the ambulance gets there, that's the most rewarding thing, to know you helped someone," she said.
Like Quinn, several other communications officers hold dual public safety jobs, including Amber Watts, who works part-time at the 911 Center and full-time for Newton County EMS.
Watts, who has been at the 911 center for just a few months, said she's gained a new perspective on the job now that she's on the other side of the radio.
"It would be good for police and firefighters and EMTs, everybody, to come sit with (us) before they go on the road so they would have more of an idea of what it's like," Watts said.
Vic Wagnon also pulls double duty, working full-time for Newton County Fire Services and part-time at the center.
"The main thing is safety," Wagnon said of his most important responsibility. "Whoever is responding, whether it's firefighters, EMTS or police, their safety and scene safety is No. 1."
The group said they have to distance themselves from the chaos they must deal with daily, and not take work home.
If they do get upset, they have each other for support.
"Public safety, regardless of where you are in it, is a pretty close-knit group. We talk to our peers and supervisors - people you know will listen and understand," Wagnon said.
As for what citizens should know when they call 911, they were all clear on one point: "The more information they have to give us, probably the faster they will get service," Wagnon said.
Bottom line: 911 always needs to know where the caller is, and the more specific the information, the better.
"Bear with us," said Edmetris Moore, who has worked at the center for three-and-a-half years. "Know we will ask questions. Those questions must be asked in order to get them some help."
The calmer the caller is, the easier it will be to understand the information being given, Ruppel said.
"Be patient with us. Nobody understands we have to ask questions. We understand it's an emergency for the person who's calling, and I don't know if I was in an emergency situation that I could be all that I'm saying to be," she said.
Finally, parents be warned, when letting children play with cell phones: 911 can still be dialed on a cell phone that is turned off, Ruppel said.
Children will call and the person on the other end may not be able to determine if there is a real emergency. They also can't call back until the cell phone is turned on.
It's a pretty common occurrence, Ruppel said.
"Spring break and summer are busy times for us," she said.
Crystal Tatum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.