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A Night at the 9-1-1 Center

A Night at the 9-1-1 Center

By Lise Hamlin, NVRC Director of Access and Advocacy

Editor: If you’ve ever wondered about how emergency calls are handled, Lise Hamlin’s article gives a real inside view of what goes on at a public safety communications center. The details of your particular center may be different, but much of what is in this article probably applies to your center, as well.


May 2007

“One evening I felt sick. I was afraid to use my TTY to call 9-1-1. I wasn’t sure I’d get through. So, I called my ex-husband to take me to the hospital. It took him a while to get to me and then get us both to the hospital. The nurse told me I should never do that, that I could have died. What should I have done instead?”

“What happens if I’m on the road alone at night and crash into a tree and I only have my Sidekick? What do I do then?”

“Many of my friends use video phones. Can 9-1-1 Centers handle videophone calls?”

“I stopped my phone service at home because I rarely use my TTY anymore. I just use my Blackberry and the video phone to call my friends; I don’t need the TTY anymore. What do I do about 9-1-1 calls?”

“Can I use i711.com to call 9-1-1?”

These and many more questions came up on May 1, 2007 at the Fairfax County Emergency Communications Center during a free tour and presentation at that the Center provided for NVRC. Wrentree S. Kelly, Assistant Supervisor, Department of Public Safety Communications in Fairfax County presented a wealth of information to the community about the 9-1-1 Center’s operations and how to make emergency calls.

The tour attracted 30 people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Interpreters, CART and an FM system were available so that all could participate. Ms. Kelly was assisted by Anita Reynolds, whose 16-year-old son who is deaf and who works at the Fairfax County Fire Department.

The Department of Public Safety Communications
According to the Fairfax County website, the Fairfax County Department of Public Safety Communications (DPSC) is a nationally recognized public safety communications center, one of the 50 largest in the United States and the largest in Virginia. It is the agency responsible for receiving all 9-1-1 emergency calls in Fairfax County and dispatching units of the Fairfax County Police Department and Fire and Rescue Department.

DPSC received and handled approximately 1.1 million calls in 2006. The center is one of the few of its kind that is accredited by the commonwealth of Virginia to provide Emergency Medical Dispatch /Pre-Arrival Instruction to assist in medical emergencies prior to the arrival of public safety personnel.

Training for Emergency Call Takers
Ms. Kelly began her presentation by providing us with an overview of the training the County provides to emergency call takers. Call takers may spend anywhere from three to six months in training before they are ready to be dispatchers. Included in their training is information about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Fairfax County Standard Operating Procedure (SOP). The SOP is set up to ensure that anyone who uses a TTY or VCO phone will have access to the 9-1-1 Centers. The training also gives an overview of TTYs, VCO phones and CapTel phones. Each month the Center makes surprise test calls on TTYs once to make sure their equipment is working and the call taker can recognize the TTY call and handle it properly.

Calls from Deaf or Hard of Hearing Individuals
Ms. Kelly said she has noticed a drop in overall number of Relay calls received by the 9-1-1 Center; she says they are “few and far between.” People who attended the presentation confirmed that many consumers are now using Sidekicks, Blackberrys, pagers and videophones instead of TTYs for their everyday needs, and they would like to see 9-1-1 Centers accept text and videophone calls. Ms. Kelly let us know they do NOT accept text calls or videophone calls directly.

The Best Way to Place a 9-1-1 Call
Ms. Kelly told us that the best way to place a 9-1-1 call is to do it directly using some kind of phone. If you use a TTY, call 9-1-1 with your TTY. If you use a CapTel phone, call directly to the 9-1-1 Center. Or you can use a standard phone and voice your message. Any TTY call, whether made from home or on a portable TTY or a cell phone that has TTY capability, can be accepted by the 9-1-1 Center.

Like most 9-1-1 centers in the US, the Fairfax County 9-1-1 Center cannot handle text messages or videophone calls. Ms. Kelly indicated she does understand that many people now are using PDAs, pagers and other ways to send text message instead of TTYs. She made it clear that we should not attempt to call 9-1-1 either by text or by videophone.

Gary Viall one of the tour attendees, reminded us that it is important to keep our TTYs and wireline phone service even if we never use them; you just never know when it will be useful in an emergency. Ms. Reynolds said she agreed with that. She even keeps an old style phone that can draw its power from the phone line to operate, just in case her power goes out.

Relay Calls to 9-1-1
Ms. Kelly also mentioned the 9-1-1 Center will accept Relay calls. She said that it’s best to use a TTY and call the 9-1-1 Center directly, but if need be, Relay can be used. Virginia Relay’s website agrees: “In an Emergency, please remember to dial 9-1-1 or the emergency services center directly!” Also, several Internet Relay providers, such as Hamilton and i711.com strongly recommend that emergency calls not be made through IP Relay, and that people call directly using a standard phone or TTY.

If IP Relay or standard Relay are the only way that you can get through, tell the Relay Operator:
• The location (Address, City and State) of the emergency
• Type of emergency and
• A call back number if possible, in case you get disconnected

Dealing with “Silent Calls”
The Fairfax County Emergency Center call takers have also been trained to respond to silent calls where they do not hear anyone talking to them. They are to treat these calls as if they are a TTY call and respond by TTY. The 9-1-1 Center has “enhanced 9-1-1” technology (called E9-1-1 for short) which gives it access to a database of phone numbers of standard (landline) phones and TTYs. If the 9-1-1 Center gets no response to a silent call, and the Center has access to the address for that telephone number on the its automated system, the dispatcher will send a police officer to that address to check for a possible emergency.

The Tour
After two hours of questions, the group went on a tour of the 9-1-1 Center. Because there were so many of us, we were broken up into groups of ten people each. The tour allowed us to get a sense of the kind of equipment call takers use when a 9-1-1 call comes in.

After all our questions were answered and all were finished with the tour, it was about 10:00 pm! Our hosts at the Center were gracious and helpful. It turned out to be an informative – and possibly life saving – night at the 9-1-1 Center!

NVRC thanks Wrentree S. Kelly and the Fairfax County Emergency Communications Center for providing this tour and presentation.

(c)2007 by Northern Virginia Resource Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons (NVRC), 3951 Pender Drive, Suite 130, Fairfax, VA 22030; www.nvrc.org. 703-352-9055 V, 703-352-9056 TTY, 703-352-9058 Fax You do not need permission to share this information, but please be sure to credit NVRC.