By Debra Minor Wilson
Times West Virginian
From high atop a hill just off the Gateway Connector outside Fairmont city limits, Marion County’s Central Communications Center keeps a constant protective vigil over the county.
Its 911 dispatchers help you in times of peril.
The Marion County Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management rescues you from the ravages of nature.
When the unthinkable happens and you need emergency help, just dial 911 and your call is dispatched quickly and efficiently to the appropriate responder through the center’s Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system.
And in seconds, help is on its way.
“We’re the first first-responders,” said Central Com shift captain Joe Masturzo.
“The call starts with us and ends with us, from the first units dispatched out to the last units going back to station.
“We get someone out there to help you.”
This is all part of the mission of Marion County’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management to keep you safe and help you when you need it.
Masturzo is one of several dispatchers answering your calls. With a glance and push of a button, he can tell the phone number that called and from which address or nearest cell tower. The computer “talks” to a GPS map to Masturzo’s left, placing a dot above the location where the call originated.
Another tap of a button, and he can tell what kind of emergency you have, and, with a preset button, alert the closest responder you need. The status of responders is checked every six and a half minutes.
And in seconds, help is on your way.
“Everything is based on the addresses the call is made,” he said.
Each dispatcher deals with one kind of responder each shift … county or city police, fire or rescue … and rotates from day to day.
Dispatchers can also run BOLO (be on lookout) alerts, run criminal background checks and track stolen guns or vehicles, he said.
“This is quicker and more efficient than our previous system,” he said.
“Before this, we had this Rolodex about this big around,” he said, spreading his arms way apart. “If there was a structure fire, we had to get up, run over to the Rolodex, which was all done numerically and alphabetically We had to spin that Rolodex, pull out a card, run back and dispatch where to send for the fire.
“Now it’s all preset for us. This saves tremendous time. And seconds save lives.”
Before every shift, workers review the previous CAD log history.
“We read every CAD, from traffic stop to public service call,” he said.
“If someone calls in to say they called the night before, we already know what was going on.”
They can also flag frequent callers with medical histories.
“There’s this little boy who is extremely ill,” he said. “We have his medical history, medicines, allergies, things like that. If there is a call from that address, we will get an automatic pop just like that.”
They have computerized information on homes with guns.
“It’s all for the safety of the officers,” he said. ““It’s a very sophisticated system. It’s awesome.”
When a medical call is taken, dispatchers use Emergency Medical Dispatch cards to walk the caller through the emergency.
“Once they tell us what the problem is, we flip to that card and ask a set of preset questions. That all depends on what the caller tells us.”
That’s why you need to be able to give dispatch certain information such as your name, address (including fire locator number), phone number and type of emergency.
“Anything that will help us get them help as quickly as possible,” Masturzo said.
And it’s also a work in progress, he said. Capabilities are added and tweaked constantly.
The center has handled 41,610 calls this year, from fire and rescue, law enforcement and public service calls.
The dispatchers do more than just handle emergency calls, he added.
“For fires, we call the power and gas companies. If there’s a road way obstruction, we call the Department of Highways.
“There’s a lot we do behind the scenes that people don’t understand we do. They think we just answer 911 calls and we’re finished. That’s not the case. It continues to go on after that.”
Dispatchers undergo four weeks of training before walking through the door at 50 Centerview Drive.
Making the whole thing work are three shift captains, three lieutenants, four sergeants, along with director Chris McIntire; Dennis Knotts, deputy director; and Glen Satterfield, communication officer.
It can be a stressful job, Masturzo said.
“Earlier today, I had my butt handed to me, with traffic stops, school zones and wrecks. All at one time. But now, the phone has rung just once.”
There are no windows here. But he can always tell when there’s bad weather outside.
“We can get 75-100 calls an hour when we get a storm,” Masturzo said. “Lines down. Trees down. That all comes through here.
“But it’s a great place to be. I’ve been here 11 years, and I plan to retire from here someday. I love my job 100 percent. There are 56,000 people out there depending on me.
“Honest to goodness, my reward isn’t my paycheck. My reward is right here every day, knowing that when I leave here I’ve touched maybe 150 people before I walk out that door. And any time that could be one of my kids. It could be anybody.”
Whatever means necessary … computerized place file, GPS, street address, fire locators … are used to find you, he said.
Converting post office box addresses to physical street addresses “has sped things up for us tenfold,” he said.
This CAD system “is light years” ahead of that old system, said Dennis Knotts, deputy director of the center.
“We used to have 1960s, 1970s equipment. This is the most up-to-date. It’s the same equipment as Mon County. One of these days, we can tie our information into theirs so if our center goes down, we can send it to them and hopefully, one day in reverse.”
Training takes place “almost daily,” he said. Dispatchers never sit at the same terminal two days in a row.
“They’re always trained on everything,” he said.
The center is there to help you.
“But we’re 911, not 411,” he said. “We’re not here to tell you why your light went out at the end of your street or find phone numbers for you. People do call with that.
“We’re here to help you in any way, shape or form. We are the voices at the end of the call. The faces people never see. The people everybody forgets about after calling 911.”
In addition to this immediate help, the center provides long-term disaster relief.
When a disaster happens, or even before if possible, representatives of all emergency agencies … fire, rescue and police; National Guard, Red Cross, health department, Division of Highways and more … meet in the center’s disaster control room, to plan relief strategies.
“This is where everybody comes,” Knotts said. “This is where the decisions are made.”
That could mean if and where to open shelters, offer water and food, or monitor road conditions. The last disaster was the Leap Year Flood on Feb. 29, 2012, he said.
“We meet and then it happens. We get where we need to be to take care of the problem. Somebody is in this room until it’s decided to deactivate the emergency.”
The Marion County Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management offers disaster necessities like:
• 2,000 gallons of bottled water
• 13,000 Meals Ready to Eat (MREs)
• 780 regular cots and 100 special needs cots, blankets and pillows
• Portable shelters
• Portable toilets
• Pumps, generators and water pumps
• Portable shelters
And should an emergency or disaster strike, this is ready to go.
“Our philosophy is to be prepared for multiple types of events,” said director Chris McIntire.
“We plan for anything and hope for the best. We have enough equipment for any kind of disaster.”
They’re also ready to help out surrounding counties … any place in the state, really … when they need it.
“We used this equipment in the derecho last year and the Bunner Ridge flood. We’ve had instances every year. It’s been quiet for a while, but we stay prepared as best we can.”
The Office of Emergency Management keeps tabs with the public through cellphone, Facebook and Twitter.
Responders keep in touch with each other through the advanced digital radio trunking system, which is connected to 40 towers throughout the state.
“We have the ability on portable radio to talk to someone in Wheeling, Charleston or Beckley,” McIntire said, “where years ago we couldn’t even talk to someone two miles away.”
Multiple back-ups help connect responders.
“This all makes first responders safer and more efficient,” he said.
“And it keeps the public safe by getting first responders there faster.”
Email Debra Minor Wilson at email@example.com.