WHEN IT RAINS, IT SNOWBALLS
February 24, 2014
By Audrey Fraizer
Ask Sharon Martin about transferring into a police/fire/EMS consolidated communication center that more than triples the size of the city’s police primary PSAP that she had worked at for 20 years.
Then ask the former floor supervisor about adjusting to dispatch protocol and certification, accreditation, longer shifts, and working in the same space as 160 other people after being accustomed to the noise of one-tenth that number.
“Of course, I was worried,” Martin said. “Everything would be new and a big change from the way we had been doing things.”
Finally, ask her if she would now have it any other way.
“It’s turned out so much better than I had anticipated,” she said. “There’s a lot more opportunity.”
Martin is support services manager for the Charleston County Consolidated 9-1-1 Center in North Charleston, S.C. She oversees the training section, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) section, the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) data, and manages the quality assurance section.
Her first job in public service was as a records clerk for North Charleston Police Department. She applied for a position in emergency communications after presenting a training course for dispatchers on the use of the NCIC database.
“I can do this,” Martin said. “I really thought dispatch would be for me.”
She did, and it was.
Martin rose through the ranks, hitting the ceiling as an Operator 3 and shift supervisor prior to the consolidation. Once that happened, she was presented opportunities for career growth, and in three years, achieved a goal she thought would take closer to five years to accomplish.
“Yeah, it’s been great,” she said. “I was concerned about not having any say when we transferred, but it hasn’t been that way at all. I’ve had a say from the start.”
A cooperative, multi-jurisdictional Consolidated Dispatch Board of law enforcement, fire, and EMS officials within Charleston County was organized in 2006 to lead the move toward a consolidated dispatch center. An intergovernmental agreement signed by participating agencies included provisions relating to direction and funding, with the county taking full financial responsibility following a two-year startup period.
A national search for a person to direct the center resulted in hiring Jim Lake, a former program director for the Massachusetts State 911 Department.
Lake’s public service résumé included two prior consolidation projects, and he was also a consultant for L. Robert Kimball & Associates, which assisted in preparing the consolidation feasibility study for the Charleston County Consolidated 9-1-1 Center. He fully intended to continue at the same consulting firm once the plan was completed.
“It was a difficult decision leaving the job at L. Robert Kimball, but Charleston County seemed to be a great place to go next,” said Lake, who took over as director in 2008. “The county was determined to do it right, and the county never backed down from that. Even when the economy was at its worst, Charleston County continued to fund the project, and it went on.”
During the past five years, Lake has lived the timeline he helped develop. He arrived shortly before North Charleston’s call center merged with the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office and EMS Dispatch. Just over four years later, in March 2013, with 15 agencies on board, Lake cut the symbolic ribbon in the center’s move to the 38,000 square-foot, two-story communication and emergency operations center. The center now serves 21 police, fire, and medical agencies.
From the start, and before the move, Lake had listed buy-in and participation as top priorities. He wanted staff involved, which was something suiting the talents and temperament of Jon Schebesta.
Schebesta, a jack-of-all-trades, has earned a reputation on the dispatch floor as the go-to guy for computer troubleshooting. He is now a certified multi-function calltaker, law enforcement dispatcher, and fire/EMS dispatcher, giving him the ability to step into any position “at a moment’s notice.”
It was Schebesta’s prior experience, however, that caught Lake’s attention.
Schebesta is a former upstate New York firefighter and EMT. He made the tough decision to go inside seven years ago when injuries from a traffic accident made it so he could no longer fight fires. The move was difficult, and that’s an understatement.
“It was horrible,” Schebesta said. “I used to be the one sent and going to the scene. It was very difficult to get over that.”
His firefighting experience, however, proved invaluable in Charleston.
Schebesta was tapped to assist in developing Charleston’s fire dispatch training program. He had the knack for navigating urban geography and provided a step-phased training approach to teaching the county’s road system. He and two others created the SOPs for the harbor channel used in communicating with the U.S. Coast Guard and Charleston County Metro Marine Unit. He is still active in search and rescue dive operations.
“Jim recognized my strengths and made use of them,” said Schebesta, who in December transferred to the center’s Information Technology section. “That’s his style. He walks through the center at least once a week, shaking hands and asking people what he can do to help. He’s very open to input.”
The combined center has everything in terms of technology, security, and comfort control. As they say, it’s state of the art. The building is built to withstand hurricanes and earthquakes, and the 8-foot perimeter wall complements the distancing from residential and commercial development.
The computer-aided dispatch terminals are new, and the same goes for everything else in the building, from furnishings to hardware down to the nuts and bolts. There is dedicated space for 9-1-1 calltaking, police dispatch, and fire/rescue/EMS dispatch. A fitness center, kitchen and breakroom, and a quiet room are accessible 24/7, and bunks are available when an emergency demands long hours and increased staff. And it has lots of “green” features, making it a LEED Gold-certified building.
Windows providing a view of the outside was a big plus, so is an indoor sound system isolating the noise of a ringing phone to the ear of the next calltaker in the queue, rather than dispersing the noise throughout the space.
The people on the second floor of the building include 135 dispatchers, calltakers, and supervisors, and many are cross-trained to answer phones and radio dispatch; certification in the police, fire, and medical protocols is required. Most are from agencies existing prior to the consolidation, and despite guarantees in pay and job security, only about 1% looked forward to the merger and shared space.
“Smaller agencies were concerned about losing local control and the personal connection, such as knowing the citizen by the sound of their voice before asking their name,” Lake said. “Some people didn’t like going from a quiet community to a larger center with the potential of violent crimes. We lost people, and I fully understand why.”
Josette Middleton numbers among the 99% who were not so eager. She was in her third year at the EMS secondary PSAP where she alternated between calltaking and dispatching for EMS and fire. After consolidation, she would be dedicated to calltaking, at least at the beginning.
“I was OK with that, and ready to take on the challenge,” Middleton said. “But I felt like I was leaving my home and going into a foster setting. It wasn’t about my taking on new responsibilities, but I would no longer be part of a dispatch family.”
Instead, Middleton was swept up in the move. She served on the chair and uniform selection committees, and toured the new facility during various stages of construction. She has since been promoted to supervisor, certified to dispatch EMS and fire, and anticipates earning her credentials for dispatching police calls.
“We were part of every decision—the color of the walls, the type of chair—and we selected committees based on who we thought would best represent us,” she said. “We’re no longer the stepchildren. We are part of this.”
Everyone, of course, played a part in the fire and medical accreditation, and, currently, in completing the 20 Points of Accreditation required for the police ACE.
Lake coaxed Charlotte Hughlett out of retirement to help achieve the ACEs, and she didn’t have to be asked twice to accept the provisional position.
Hughlett and Lake first worked together in 1998 when the Academy pulled them in as part of the group developing police and fire protocols. Hughlett had the fire and medical background, while Lake offered police and fire expertise.
Hughlett also had ACE experience. Her first ACE was at the Colorado Springs (Colo.) Police Department in 1998, when she was the training and quality assurance manager. She serves on the Academy’s Board of Accreditation and is an ACE reviewer.
Her primary orders of business for the Charleston County Consolidated 9-1-1 Center were “talking up what the ACE means” and “team building,” with more than 100 people with a diversity of experience and abilities that consolidation was stirring into one pot.
“There was so much they had to learn,” she said. “Protocols. SOPs. How the new agency was going to work. It was a matter of keeping them motivated.”
Hughlett concentrated on making the process fun; for those agencies still waiting to join the consolidation, she scheduled classes convenient to the 12-hour shifts and monitored daily progress. She traveled every other weekend to her home in Florida and set a dual ACE deadline of 18 months.
Having experienced a consolidation and bringing that agency to the ACE level simultaneously, she understood the frustrations of Charleston County staff. It’s not an easy process, especially when doubled.
“They were ready with everything but the numbers, so it took a little longer than I had anticipated,” she said. “I was always confident it was going to happen, and encouraged everyone knowing that it would work once they gave it a chance.”
Lake wouldn’t have it any other way; ACE was a goal from the start.
“ACE is testament to the quality of service we provide to the public,” he said. “ACE tells the community we care, and we’re doing it right. When you call our center, you’re going to get the same level of care regardless of who answers the phone.”
Every time it looks like Lake might reach the end of the “to-do” list he started, he finds other projects lending to his goal of making Charleston County Consolidated 9-1-1 the model for South Carolina. He stays busy with projects ranging from accreditation to technology projects to the statewide adoption of NG9-1-1 technology.
But it’s the people that are his primary reason for staying.
“The challenge is different than it used to be for me,” Lake said. “Those that succeed in 9-1-1 have the heart for public safety. It’s my job to find those people, mentor them, and prepare them as our future stakeholders of 9-1-1.”