On Friday morning, an employee at the National Security Agency called 911. A colleague was having a seizure and needed immediate assistance.
John Bump, the temporary lead dispatcher at the Directorate of Emergency Services’ Dispatch Center, answered the call.
In a matter of seconds, Bump recorded the important facts — the caller’s name and location and the status of the person in distress — into the Computer Aided Dispatch System and noted it as a high priority call. He then contacted the Fort Meade fire department to send a team of fire fighters, paramedics and police to the site.
Before the call was over, Bump gave the NSA employee pre-arrival instructions on how to ensure the colleague would be safe until help arrived.
“Don’t put anything in his mouth,” Bump told the caller. “Remove any objects from around his face and mouth.”
Bump is one of 12 public safety dispatchers at the DES Dispatch Center who respond to 911 emergency and non-emergency calls for the installation.
He said the best part of his job is “knowing you can help and make a difference in someone’s life.”
Deborah Holfelder, supervisor for the Dispatch Center, said her team of nationally certified public safety dispatchers handle an average of up to 4,000 calls per month — both emergency and non-emergency calls that include requests for medical, fire and police assistance.
“It saves lives,” Holfelder said of the center’s work. “The purpose of 911 is to save lives and get help there faster.”
Holfelder said that in emergency situations, a 911 call saves lives because the responder is a professionally trained and certified dispatcher who can get first responders to their location and give necessary pre-arrival instructions in emergency situations in the fastest way possible.
Emergency calls can range from a cardiac arrest or report of domestic violence to a fire or shooting.
Bump said a dispatcher can handle an emergency call and have help sent on its way within seven minutes.
Calls made from cellphones within Fort Meade’s jurisdiction are routed to the DES Dispatch Center through the Anne Arundel County Fire Department.
Holfelder said the cellphone towers in the area can pick up the location of a 911 call near Fort Meade that is made from a cellphone. The fire department routes the call to Fort Meade if it is the nearest 911 dispatch center.
Tawana Myles, a public safety dispatcher who has worked at Fort Meade for two years years, said no one day is the same.
“You really get to help people,” she said. “This is not a tedious job.”
Public safety dispatchers undergo several weeks of training by the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch.
According to its website, the IAED “is a nonprofit standard-setting organization promoting safe and effective emergency dispatch services worldwide. Comprising three allied academies for medical, fire and police dispatching, the IAED supports first responder-related research, unified protocol application, legislation for emergency call center regulation, and strengthening the emergency dispatch community through education, certification, and accreditation.”
Fort Meade’s dispatchers are DoD civilians and also undergo DoD telecommunications training for certification.
Part of the training involves scripts that dispatchers read in specific situations to ensure they get all the pertinent information from a caller to respond appropriately. For example, Bump read a script to respond to the 911 call about the seizure.
Fort Meade’s dispatchers come to DES after years of experience at other 911 call centers.
Before arriving at Fort Meade, Bump worked at dispatch centers at Aberdeen Proving Ground and in West Virginia. He said he entered the field by following in his father’s footsteps.
“My dad is a 911 director,” Bump said.
Bump, who has worked at Fort Meade for two years, also was an emergency medical technician.
“I knew enough about [being a dispatcher] to make a career,” he said.
Myles said her career choice was also influenced by her father, who was a firefighter with the Ocala Rescue Fire Department in Florida. She worked at the fire department’s dispatch center for seven years before working for the Marion County Public Safety Communications Center in Florida for five years.
Not every call, however, is an emergency. Calls from the installation also concern stray cats and dogs, shoplifting and car trouble.
Myles said an important part of the job is learning how to leave the work they do at the office. With experience, she said, dispatchers learn not to be stressed out by the 911 calls they handle.
Bump said it is important to stay calm and focused on the task at hand.
“A lot of this is dealing with people on the worst day of their life,” he said. “ … They don’t know who they’re talking to and they’re scared. All they know is they need help.”
Holfelder said the work her team does “is a career. It’s not a job.” She said that in the past, 911 dispatchers were viewed as “people who just answer the phone.”
But not anymore.
“We are the first first-responders when you make that call,” Holfelder said.