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Liberty 911 wants to pinpoint cell calls
Upon approval of the budget, the 911 center's computers will allow information about the location of cellular calls. - photo by Photo provided by Tom Wahl
By Patty Leon
Coastal Courier (Hinesville, GA) Staff Writer

You are driving down the street and witness a terrible accident. Or you’re home alone and hear someone trying to break in. Who are you going to call?
It’s common knowledge when faced with any life-threatening scenario you should immediately call 911. A delay can be the difference between life and death.
What many are not aware of is the importance of knowing how to call 911 and what to say.
During a Public Safety Communication Department Advisory Board meeting Tuesday, County Administrator Joey Brown and Communications Director Tom Wahl discussed situations that can complicate calls.
One issue addressed was incoming calls from cellular phones. The department is waiting for county commission funding to implement a two-phased approach to upgrade the system to better handle cellular calls.
When a call is received from a home or business the current enhanced 911 allows caller information to be displayed on a computer screen. But, that information is not available on cellular calls and must be collected by the 911 operator.
“We are receiving more calls from cellular phones and people are using the newer technology, but with our current system more technology means less information on our 911 screens,” Wahl said.
Upon approval of the budget the department can begin to upgrade the software and networking to start phase I, which will enable the cellular number calling to be displayed on the 911 screen. As the upgrades and systems are enhanced, phase II will improve the operators’ ability to locate where the call originates.
Although the upgrades will help reduce errors and provide quicker information to the 911 operators, clear and concise communication from the caller is still vital in verifying the information provided on the screen and being relayed by the caller, Wahl said.
“As soon as we receive the call the first thing we ask is where is your emergency?” Brit Cortes, training coordinator for the center, said. “People need to know where they are and where the emergency is located.”
Cortes said callers should be aware of addresses, street signs nearby business, and other landmarks that can assist the dispatcher in sending help to the right place.
“A common misconception people have is that when we receive the call we automatically know where they are and what is happening, and that is not always the case, especially with cell phone calls,” Cortes said.
Even when calls come from landlines, the information that appears on the screen is where the call is being originated and that may not be the same place as the emergency. For example, a neighbor may dial 911 to report a fire that is across the street.
“This is why it is vital that callers do their best to remain calm when placing a 911 call, we need to verify what is happening, where it is happening, and gather the necessary information to provide to the rescue and emergency personnel,” Cortes said.
Operators and dispatchers go through rigorous testing and interviewing before being hired. Once hired they train in a classroom setting for about eight weeks and afterward do on-the-job training with experienced workers.
“These employees are trained professionals and know how to handle hysterical callers, and they must be able to multi-task,” Cortes said. “We get many trainees that make it through the training but when they hit the floor they can’t handle it. It is very stressful and can be mentally and physically draining. Many times somebody’s life is in the dispatchers’ hands.”
Those who complete the process are ready to handle any call that comes in, whether it is a fire, a robbery in progress, a minor fender bender or any other scenario. 
The need to verify addresses was another issue discussed Tuesday.
Liberty County has many streets that are either spelled the same but end different, or sound the same but spelled different.
“This is an issue not easily fixed by an upgrade to the systems or technology and this is a serious issue we need to address,” Brown said.
Board members received a four-page handout giving examples of street names that can complicate the response time of rescue personnel. Brown read a few to address his concern.
“There is a Busby Road and a Busbee Road and they are both in Hinesville. Another example is Kings Road, one is in Midway the other is in Hinesville, Martin Road, one in Midway and one in Hinesville and so on.”
Brown and Wahl explained how it could delay assistance when a caller is unsure of their location either because of being panicked, nervous, injured or unfamiliar with the area.
Assistant Communications Director Erika Smith is working with the Liberty Consolidated Planning Commission to ensure that future streets and roads do not bear the same name or duplicate a name already in existence.
“Although this will helps us in the future, it doesn’t address the existing duplicate names we have in the system, that is going to be an ongoing situation,” Brown said.
He commended the operators and dispatchers’ work, in spite of the difficulty they face regarding street names and working in an environment that can become chaotic during emergencies.
“When there is a bad accident, we will get 40-50 calls all coming in at the same time regarding the same situation, all being answered by different dispatchers and we have to immediately sort it all out,” Wahl said.

Calling tips

When faced with the need to call 911 remember these tips:
Dial 911
Look around for precise information about your location and the location of the emergency.
Look for street sign and landmarks.
Note what city or town you are in.
If possible note any nearby intersections.
Get your bearings (north, south, east, west)
Take a deep breath and speak as calm and as clear as possible to the operator.
Answer all the questions they ask regardless whether you think it is pertinent or not (It may be for them to verify information)
Do not hang up unless you are directed to do so by the operator.
Listen carefully to the questions being asked of you.
Remain as calm as possible during the entire conversation.
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