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Covington-Newton County 911 dispatchers honored during Telecommunications Week

Covington-Newton County 911 Communications Center Team Leader Sarah Herbert mans the phones during a busy time when a vehicle crash involving serious injuries had just happened on Interstate 20. Herbert has been a dispatcher for nine years. - Staff photos by Sue Ann Kuhn Smith

Covington-Newton County 911 Communications Center Team Leader Sarah Herbert mans the phones during a busy time when a vehicle crash involving serious injuries had just happened on Interstate 20. Herbert has been a dispatcher for nine years. - Staff photos by Sue Ann Kuhn Smith

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Team B at the Covington-Newton County 911 Communications Center was assisted Wednesday morning by part-time staff from Newton County Fire Services and trainees. Pictured here are firefighters, (in back) Josh Haynes and Jonathan Fuqua and (in front) Daniel Spell. Members of Team B are dispatchers Dara Penland, communication tech II, Krista Hipps, communications tech II, Team Leader Sarah Herbert and (seated) Jennifer Mercek, communication tech III.

COVINGTON -- Business was brisk and all hands were on deck at the Covington-Newton County 911 Communications Center Wednesday morning as dispatchers dealt with various aspects of a wreck involving serious injuries on Interstate 20.

Some dispatchers were dealing with calls for ambulances; some were dealing with assistance from fire services; some were dealing with law enforcement response; some were dealing with making necessary contacts concerning the closing of the Interstate; some were dealing with getting a wrecker to the scene; some were dealing with other emergency calls that continued to come in; and when there are only four dispatchers on duty, that calls for a lot of multi-tasking. But it's all in a day's work for these dedicated professionals.

"They are the best of the best. We've proven that time and time again through our accreditation and other things," said Director Mike Smith. "I'd put them up against anybody, anywhere. They work hard and put in a lot of hours. We couldn't ask for a better group. They make me proud."

The week of April 14-20 has been designated National Public Safety Telecommunications Week in honor of the many telecommunications professionals who aid in providing 911 emergency assistance.

The Covington-Newton County Center has 32 budgeted positions, but is not fully staffed right now, although they have two dispatchers in training. The job is unique and there is a fair amount of turnover.

"It's not for everybody. We're a certain breed," said B Team Leader Sarah Herbert. "You have to be a certain type of person to handle it."

The center provides services for all of the public safety agencies in Newton County and answers all 911 calls as well as other non-emergency lines. The communications officers handle an average of 20,000 telephone calls each month.

"Newton County citizens have a fantastic asset here that is unseen and unknown," Smith said. "They're a good group."

Herbert has been in the job for nine years and is still enjoying her work.

"I like being able to help people in some kind of way. We're not out there in person helping, but we're the first ones people talk to so we put a little something towards helping them," she said, adding that she also enjoyed working with her co-workers.

Her least favorite part of the job is having to work holidays and being away from family during that time.

"Sometimes there are certain calls that are hard to deal with, but we do it. And after it is over, if we have to take a minute, we take a minute," she said.

Herbert said calls involving children bother her now more than they did before she became a mother.

"They get to me in a different way than they used to. It's like I picture my baby," she said.

She said the bulk of the calls the center receives concern routine problems like people locking their keys in their car, needing a law enforcement escort, burglar alarms sounding or domestic disputes.

"But you never know what's going to happen," Herbert said.

And it's not just the public's calls for help that the dispatchers are concerned with. They work closely with law enforcement officers, as well.

"Officer safety is our No. 1 priority," she said. "You build bonds with them all. The new ones, we haven't even met them, but we feel like we have a relationship with them because we talk to them so often and know their voice."

Dispatchers keep tabs on where officers are and what's going on with them, as well as assisting them with running checks on tag numbers, insurance, driver's license information, and whether or not a person has any open warrants.

"From listening to them all day, you can tell if something is about to happen. If they're serious, and if their tone changes, you know something is wrong," she said. "And they can tell with us, too. If I'm yelling into the phone to raise them, they know it's serious."

Herbert said two calls especially stand out in her memory. One was the day a woman managed to call after her estranged husband broke into her house while on drugs.

"He hit her with a bat several times. She was really injured. I think he hit her 6-year-old with a bat, too," she recalled. "I remember just being on the phone with her because she couldn't move. She was lucky to get to the phone. I remember that one touching me."

The other memorable call was when officers were chasing a suspect down I-20 and suddenly she heard shots and the call for an ambulance.

"We knew shots were fired and they were calling for an ambulance, but we didn't know who needed the ambulance," she said. "You don't know who's injured and that was nerve-wracking."

In that situation, the suspect had turned a gun on the officers, but they were able to fire first and he was killed.

Herbert said the busiest hours for the dispatchers is usually noon to midnight during the week and on weekends from noon to approximately 3 a.m.

The dispatchers work is 12-hour shifts from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. as do police officers and deputies, so there are enough busy hours to go around.

In honor of Telecommunications Week, the Covington-Newton County dispatchers will be treated to a cookout Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. for a rare occasion when they are all off duty.

"I'm looking forward to that," Herbert said. "It's nice to get together with everybody outside of here (the center). We're thankful for our part-time people who are going to cover so we can go."