‘What’s your emergency?’: 911 dispatchers mark 50 years of answering calls for service

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Whether facing a house fire, an assault or a heart attack, Americans can dial just three digits for help.

That hasn’t always been the case. In fact, Friday was the 50th anniversary of the first 911 call, and local officials took the time to celebrate the evolution of emergency services.

“Looking at where we were when I started, if you told me we would have all the technology we have today, I don’t know if I would have believed you,” said Wilson County 911 Center Assistant Director Jeff Williford. “There has been a lot of exciting changes.”

The first 911 call was placed in 1968 in Alabama, but Wilson County didn’t establish its 911 center until July of 1983. Prior to the centralization, Wilsonians would have to either call the phone numbers for the police or fire department where they needed help or they could dial the operator and be connected to the appropriate department.

Before the 911 center, each law enforcement and fire agency had staff to answer calls and dispatch personnel, but the center consolidated the efforts. Doing so meant the 911 dispatchers had to learn the protocols for the different agencies.

“When we first started the 911 center in ’83, we didn’t have CAD or computer-aided dispatch,” said center Director Brenda Womble. “We had a card system where we wrote where the call was, what unit responded and it was time-stamped.”

When the center opened, there were 12 telecommunicators with three consoles manning three 911 lines and operating five radio channels. Now the center has 35 employees with nine consoles and six 911 lines between the main center and a backup center.

In the beginning, the telephone company did not relay the location of a caller and many county roads didn’t even have official names, so callers would be describing area landmarks with the hope telecommunicators and first responders could figure out where to find them.

As technology advanced, phone companies transmitted the location of landline telephones, but cellphones complicated the dispatch process further.

“Now if it is a wireless call on the move, we can do a rebid to the telephone equipment and repinging the cellphone to update the location for us,” said Womble.

Telecommunicators’ required training evolved as well. In the 1990s, emergency medical dispatch was added to allow telecommunicators to talk callers through life-saving instructions while first responders are en route to the scene.

“We always ask the address, get a callback number and then ask what happened,” Williford said. “From there, there are a number of questions we’ll ask about the situation, then we’ll flip in the book to the directives. We’ve already made the dispatch for EMS and police, but once we know what is going on, we have post-dispatch instructions like how to control bleeding and perform CPR.”

The 911 center has monitors of live feeds from government surveillance cameras around the city, so when a wreck happened a few months back at a monitored intersection, the telecommunicator was able to actually watch the caller administer CPR in real time.

While some cellphone companies have enabled users to text 911, Womble said new systems on the market would enable telecommunicators to receive 911 texts from all service providers as well as use videochat functions to communicate with callers.

“If ESINet is rolled out across the state to every 911 center and you’re sitting at home in Wilson, but get a call from your sister in Charlotte with chest pains, you could dial 911 here and we’ll have a one-touch transfer to the appropriate center,” Womble said. “We’d also be able to do mutual aid and handle overflow for other departments and vice versa, so if there was a fire in our main center, Johnston County could dispatch our calls until we got running at the backup center.”

Womble said hiring will begin soon for two new telecommunicators. Officials said the top qualities of a good telecommunicator include being a good multitasker and having patience. New hires will have to complete a myriad of training and certification before joining the 12-hour dispatch shifts.

“People think telecommunicators just sit there, answering the phone and talking on the radio,” Womble said. “There is so much more going on.”

In addition to the broad scope of training required, the number of calls has increased exponentially since the center first opened. In 2017, telecommunicators answered 151,687 calls, 84,734 of which were 911 calls.

One thing hasn’t changed, though. The need for public education about when to call 911 and when to call the non-emergency number or other resources for information.

“The 911 center has come a long way, but we still have a long way to go,” Womble said. “We have to stay up with technology and that is hard for anyone because of the cost, but funding through the county, the surcharge and grants help.”

For more information, including tips for when to call 911, visit www.wilson-co.com/departments/emergency-communications/.