Tough Team - Tough Year

Journal Staff

Best Practices

Public education is always at the heart of Cherokee County E911 (Georgia, USA), and that is because an enthusiastic team recruited a lot of volunteers to push the program off the ground.

Giving a face to the voice inside 911 was a big emphasis when showcasing their link in the emergency services chain. It was a live stage introducing and reinforcing the importance of their work, said Center Director Priscilla Goss. “We affect people’s lives,” she said. “We don’t always know the outcome, but we always do the best we can for any given situation.”

Message to Emergency Communications Team in recognition of their efforts during
the May 16 shootings at three spas. Emergency communication details were not released to the public (at the time of this publication).

And then the coronavirus struck, derailing a team of 25 emergency dispatchers who had tallied 50 outreach programs in 2019. Former public education team lead Lauren Stallings had scheduled eight more into the new year (2020).

Public education events during 2020—such as participation at job fairs and visiting K–12 classrooms—shrank to one virtual job fair. The same goes for community projects. Popular happenings—the Cherokee Recreation Annual Pumpkin Fest, Holly Springs Shop with a Hero, and the Canton Etowah Riverfest—were put on hold with a return date on pause for the time being.

Don’t for a second think the pandemic put the community button on hold. They do what they can and improvise. They do all they can to remain visible.

“It’s been difficult at times this year,” Goss said. “But everyone’s been pitching in.”

And that is inside and outside the center.

Cherokee County E911 staff contributions added a Santa police car and a Santa fire truck to the annual Holiday Lights of Hope, a walk-through display boasting more than two million lights. The fundraiser for the Anna Crawford Children's Center is ranked among the Top 10 best holiday lights and tree displays near Atlanta. The 911 center promotes the Cherokee County Fire & EMS annual “Keep the Wreath Green” campaign. The fire prevention awareness initiative places wreaths around the county filled with bright green bulbs but replaced with a red bulb for every structure fire that occurred in Cherokee County from Dec. 1, 2020, through Jan. 1, 2021.

Great customer service under the headset never goes away, which, according to the county’s annual report (2019), scored 99.3% for calltaking and 100% for dispatching. Calls for service are pulled at random for all 911 personnel and evaluated for quality and accuracy in nine categories, including customer service. The same report cites seven complaints during 2019, of which five were unsustained.

The public education team also organizes a monthly “Meet The Dispatcher” video for social media. The Q&A video, hosted by an emergency dispatcher, is posted on the Cherokee County E911 Facebook page. To keep a younger audience in the loop of safety, emergency dispatchers take turns reading books on video, such as August’s selection “What If You Need to Call 911?” by Anara Guard, and, in June, “Impatient Pamela calls 9-1-1” by Mary Koski.

Public education’s temporary standstill is “extremely devastating to all of us,” said Cherokee County E911 Administrative Commander Alice Fennell, who heads the public education team. “We don’t know what next year will bring but, hopefully, by August 2021, we can talk to the little kids about when to call and the older kids about a career choice.”

The team will come back strong, Fennell added. Be assured that E911 staff will resume as the recognized source of all things related to emergency communications and response. Sooner than later, they will take their places behind booths, in front of classrooms, and in presentations to senior citizens. They will again explain the reasoning behind asking questions scripted into the Medical Priority Dispatch System (MPDS®) and how the caller’s answers fine tune a dispatcher’s decision making. They will walk younger audiences through the process of when to call and what to expect when they contact 911.

While participation in external events is situationally limited, Fennell said they make up some of the loss inside the center. The regulation uniform occasionally gives way to casual dress days. Ice cream parties, catered lunches, and holiday gift exchanges lighten the absence of community service involvement until safe to meet again. In 2020, National Telecommunicators Week celebrations—usually a huge event—were scaled back because of COVID, but local public service agencies and businesses still came through with deliveries of food, goody bags, and snack baskets.

The center honors dispatchers responsible for CPR saves and baby deliveries. They receive a pink or blue stork pin for baby deliveries. There is a Tree of Life mural displayed on the wall in the center’s lobby. A green leaf highlighting the communications officer’s name is added to commemorate a CPR save. Blue and pink buds are added for baby deliveries. The tree serves as a constant reminder of their work’s value, particularly during these challenging times, Fennell said.

Emergency dispatchers are recognized monthly (Employee of the Month), and each year 11 awards are given to spotlight performance—Employee of the Year, Supervisor Award, Lead Communications Officer, Teamwork, Public Education, Training Officer, Administrative Employee, Tactical Dispatcher, Horizon Award, Part-Time Employee, and a Director’s Award.

Yet, it is not the awards, free lunches, or casual dress days that keeps the team motivated.

Goss said it is motivating to watch the progression of a trainee who may start off very nervous and timid to seeing them gain confidence, answer the phone, and work the radio.

“Not everyone has the ability to do that, and, for me, makes teaching rewarding,” she said.

Goss said performing a job not everyone can do and sharing the experience of working in 911 creates a bond.

“The people support one another; there’s camaraderie,” said Goss, who started at Cherokee County E911 25 years ago as a dispatcher/calltaker. “Truly a family. We spend so much time together. We’re there for one another. We know each other.”

While the immediate future hangs on the pandemic running its course before resuming public outreach, Fennell is certain they will jump right back in when the time is right.

“Our team really looks forward to talking to the public,” said Fennell, who started at the center 17 years ago. “Until then, we’re doing the best we can do, as we always do. That’s a part of us that never changes.”

Cherokee County is 30 miles north of Atlanta. The five main cities are Canton, Woodstock, Ball Ground, Holly Springs, and Waleska. The county slogan, “Where Metro Meets the Mountains,” complements the northern part of the county, which gives rise to the Appalachian Mountain foothills. The United States Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System lists nine summits in the county, from the 2,297-foot (700-meter) Bear Mountain to the 1,306-foot (398-meter) Posey Mountain.

Cherokee County E911 operates as part of the Cherokee County Marshal’s Office created in 1991 and accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA).

The center provides medical, fire (Cherokee and Woodstock fire departments), and police (six agencies) emergency dispatching in a 434-square-mile area that is home to 260,000 residents. The 53 full-time and nine part-time calltakers/dispatchers answer emergency, administrative, and alarm calls that in 2019 totaled about 275,000 calls, a number that is bound to increase considering Cherokee is the fastest-growing county in the metro Atlanta area.