COVINGTON - While not visible when a crisis occurs, the 25 employees of the Covington-Newton County 911 Communications Center are the vital link between the public and help when it is needed.
The agency is celebrating National Public Safety Telecommunications Week from Sunday to April 18.
"These are unsung heroes," said Team Leader Mike Watts, who has worked full-time with the agency for eight years and worked part-time before that. "They take a lot of abuse from callers and they keep on going and come back day after day for the same thing again. They don't get any recognition for what they do. We just try every year to do something special for them and let them know, 'Yeah, you are appreciated.'"
The dispatchers, who work in 12-hour shifts of five operators, handle fire, law enforcement and ambulance calls for Newton County and its municipalities. It's a rare 5 minutes that produces no call for service, although the peak hours are from noon until midnight, Watts said.
During a recent shift, Christian Favors, a 20-year-old 2006 Newton High School graduate, was monitoring the Newton County Fire Service and emergency medical service.
"I prefer to work fire and EMS," she said. "It was easy for me to train on. You're not going to hear a medic say, 'Oh, I'm in a chase,' but with the law radio, you expect anything."
Favors has been a dispatcher since December and hopes to ultimately become a law enforcement officer.
"I figured this would be my foot in the door," she said. "I love it."
She acknowledged that the job could be stressful, but said she had learned to cope with it.
"Stay calm and listen and then repeat everything that is said to you. And log everything," Favors said.
She said sometimes people who are calling for an ambulance think it is not coming fast enough when the dispatcher continues talking to them and asking questions.
"An ambulance is already on the way immediately," she said. "When we're asking more questions, they get irritated, but we're getting the ambulance on the way at that time."
Dispatcher Ashley Durand has also been working at the center only a few months, but said emergency service is a family tradition. Her brother and father are firefighters and her mother is an EMT.
"This is where I fit in," Durand said.
It's been almost a year since dispatcher Sabrina Brickle, 22, came to work at the center and she said the new radio system is a great improvement.
A state-of-the-art radio system, paid for through special purpose local option sales tax revenue, went into operation in November and it has become the envy of other agencies throughout the Southeast. The new 800 MHz OpenSky digital voice and data radio network is manufactured by Tyco Electronics Wireless Systems and is similar to the system used by the Pentagon.
"It makes it a little easier (because the public can no longer scan and listen in.) If we have somebody with warrants and they're listening, they may know that we're sending an officer out to where they are," Brickle said. "In this case, they don't. Also, there's more information we can give out over the radio like gate codes for apartment complexes and phone numbers."
Brickle said she prefers working with the law enforcement radio. Her husband is a Rockdale County Sheriff's Office deputy and he first got her interested in becoming a dispatcher, she said.
She said the most harrowing calls she's worked on are situations where officers are called to family fights.
"Domestics are usually exciting, not in a good way," she said. "There's the potential for them to go a million different ways."
The veteran on the shift was Amanda Cummings, a Covington native, but now a resident of Jasper County who has been with the center for five and a half years.
It was easy for her to recall the most memorable call of her career.
"It was the McDonald's call on (U.S. Highway) 278," she said, referring to the day Lanny Barnes rammed his car repeatedly into a family of five in the parking lot of the restaurant.
"I was running fire and EMS that day and was dealing with four ambulances on the same call and flying people out," she said with a shudder.
Cummings said a good day for her is one in which there is "no drama," but she's learned to handle the stress.
"I don't care if it gets busy. Sometimes I work better when it's busy or I'm under pressure. Your adrenalin kicks in. I like the job all around," she said.
She said she is most interested in the medical side of the job and is currently in school to become a nurse.
Team Leader Watts said in his years with the 911 center, he's seen a lot of changes - things he never would have imagined in the days when only two deputies patrolled the entire county at night.
"I don't know how we ever did it. Things have changed very much for the better," he said, adding that the satisfaction of doing a job well as a dispatcher doesn't necessarily come at the end of the week when a paycheck is received.
"You don't get into public safety for the money," he said. "They (the dispatchers) enjoy their job and they do a good job."
Barbara Knowles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.