In an emergency, calling 9-1-1 and receiving immediate help can literally mean the difference between life and death. And in Fairfax County, these calls are automatically routed to the highly trained people at the Department of Public Safety Communications (DPSC).
Housed in the McConnell Public Safety and Transportation Operations Center on West Ox Road in Fairfax, it’s the largest 9-1-1 center in Virginia and in the top 10 in the U.S. The county adopted 9-1-1 in 1981; and in 2005, it became its own agency, separate from the police.
Dispatchers receive emergency calls and dispatch police, fire/EMS, sheriff and animal protection units. And two of these dispatchers – Ashley Honabach and Gabi Graves, both also hostage and crisis negotiators – addressed a recent, virtual meeting of the Sully District Police Station’s Citizens Advisory Committee.
“Next Generation 9-1-1 is what we’re using now,” said Honabach. “It creates a faster, more resilient system that allows voice, photos, videos and text messages to flow seamlessly.”
The DPSC receives some 400,000 emergency 9-1-1 calls and 420,000 non-emergency calls annually. It also monitors approximately 1 million police events and 200,000 fire-and-rescue/EMS events per year. So getting the correct information from callers is vital.
For the best outcome, callers should try to stay calm, know their location, answer all questions, state the nature of the emergency and, if possible, have someone meet the emergency equipment. It can be difficult to find an address on a dimly lit street in the middle of the night. Furthermore, parents should teach their children how to call 9-1-1.
“We need a location to get help out to you, and we need to know exactly what’s going on,” said Honabach. “We ask a lot of questions, but they’re necessary to get you the type of assistance you need. And we’ll always verify your name and address, because sometimes technology can be wrong.”
She also noted that any phone with power is able to call 9-1-1, even those seemingly without service. “Speak loudly and clearly and stay on the phone if it’s safe to do so,” she added. “And don’t hang up until the call taker tells you to. If a caller doesn’t speak English, we can add an interpreter to the line.”
Besides calling for help, people may also send texts to 9-1-1. But, warned Honabach, “Don’t include others on the message, or we won’t get it. Only send it to us, use simple words – no abbreviations – and don’t send any photos or emojis. The rule is ‘Call when you can, text when you can’t.’ Only text when you’re unable to make a voice call to 9-1-1.”
Furthermore, she stressed, “9-1-1 should only be used in emergency situations to obtain immediate assistance. Do not call 9-1-1 for information, directory assistance, to pay traffic tickets, about your pet or as a prank. It takes up valuable time and prevents us from helping the people who really need us. And if you call by mistake, do not hang up.”
Hearing- or speech-impaired callers may dial 9-1-1 via their TTY machine. Give the call taker time to connect to the DPSC’s TTY and press any of the TTY keys a few times to receive a quicker response. Callers without this device should still call 9-1-1 and stay on the line. In most cases their phone’s address will be displayed on the call taker’s screen and help will be sent.
Fairfax County’s DPSC is also an accredited 9-1-1 center for emergency medical dispatch with the Virginia Office of Emergency Medical Services. And it’s a 9-1-1 Call Center partner with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
More than 150 people work in four squads – two at night and two during the day – and have two-week, rotating schedules. Their 12-1/2-hour shifts are from 6:30 a.m.-7 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.-7 a.m. It’s no surprise then that the DPSC motto is “Always There, Always Ready…24/7/365.”
To become a dispatcher, applicants must undergo hiring tests, a panel interview, background check and a polygraph. Then come 10 weeks of classroom training, a two-week state class, plus 10-12 weeks of on-the-job training with a trainer.
Next, Graves discussed Marcus alerts and RapidSOS. “The Marcus Alert System is designed to ensure that behavioral-health experts are involved in responding to individuals experiencing a mental-health crisis,” she said. “The goal is to divert such people away from the criminal-justice system and, instead, to resources and supports for treatment and recovery.”
The Marcus Alert System requires the establishment of a voluntary database of names of people needing such help. It’s done via www.emergencyprofile.org and is then made available to the 9-1-1 and Marcus systems. And RapidSOS is used to access this database.
“RapidSOS is integrated with your cell phone, instead of through triangulation off of cell-phone towers,” explained Graves. “And it gives us more specific information about your location – for example, where you are inside a building, or if you’re in a park and aren’t exactly sure where you are.”
This technology came in handy last summer, said Honabach, when a biker was injured on a Fountainhead Park trail. “We used Rapid SOS to pinpoint the caller’s location,” she said. “And it led the responders to the patient.”
“The information we’ll see about you will also tell us your emergency-contact and health information, if you’ve put it into your phone,” added Graves. “And your information only goes to Fairfax County – nowhere else.”
She also talked about an entity called what3words. “Street addresses don’t always point to precise locations,” she said. “So what3words has given every, 3-mile square in the world a unique, three-word address. The words are randomly assigned to each square and will always stay the same. It’s a better way to pinpoint where the caller is, and you can download the what3words app.”
Overall, said Graves, “Call 9-1-1 for immediate danger or crimes in progress. Call 703-691-2131 for non-emergency matters.”