Dispatchers in Liberty County’s 911 center spend hours in front of computer monitors in a dimly-lit, windowless room fielding calls that they don’t know whether they’ll be about a noise complaint or a shooting.
This week, the men and women who are the first to get calls for help were recognized by a recurring congressional proclamation of National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week. Every year the second week of April is set aside to thank the operators who do an often thankless job. According to Liberty County 911 Director Tom Wahl, the county also issues a proclamation to coincide with the national one.
Aside from earning a living, Shanquanette Williams said she took the high-stress job more than 10 years ago because of her nature.
“It’s all about helping people,” she said. “That’s something I love to do. I’ve always wanted to do it.”
Williams, who handles calls ranging from traffic accidents, to fires and even the absurd, answers each call professionally: “911, what’s your emergency?”
In the beginning, before she learned how to separate work from her personal life, she would answer her home phone, “911, what’s your emergency?”
She’s since learned to leave her work at the end of her eight-hour shifts, but not some memories. One call that haunts her involved the death of an infant. She sent police and medical personnel.
“I had to know the outcome of that infant which turned out not too well,” she recalled, revealing few details. “Nine out of 10 times we never know the outcome of a call.”
Along with the tragic calls, there are lighthearted ones. One involved a woman claiming a bird was changing into a man. She wanted police to investigate and an officer was dispatched.
At times, 911 operators bear the anger of callers in crisis, and Williams said she takes it in stride.
“They don’t know you and you don’t know them,” she said. “I’m here to help them. If they say something not right there’s not much they can say to ruffle me. You have to have thick skin.”
Emergency responders view 911 as a vital tool, according to Hinesville Police Sgt. Mike Gosseck.
“911 is our lifeline, our No. 1 communications contact,” he said.
He calls the operators unsung heroes.
“Citizens don’t call us directly. They call 911,” the sergeant said. “The operator very quickly gets the information, decides who they’re going to send, how many they’re going to need and tries to keep the caller calm. And when it’s over, we get the pat on the back or the handshake and they forget it all started with the call to 911.”