After spending the last 10 years in the construction business, 31-year-old Noreen Taylor decided she wanted to try her hand at something different.
Thinking that going into government service could also help bring in a steady paycheck, she applied to be a 911 operator, joining a group of 12 other new hires currently working to finish their first-responder training on St. Thomas.
"Everything’s completely different — there’s nothing that’s the same," Taylor said, comparing her time in the construction field to the last three weeks she’s spent studying for her new job.
So far the training has been intense, she said. For the past three weeks, members of the group — which includes another 11 dispatchers that have been transferred over from the V.I. Police Department — has been working from Monday through Friday preparing for their final exam, which will cover what they’ve learned about police, fire and medical-dispatch services and includes everything from CPR training to dealing with weapons of mass destruction.
Even the little things are tested. Using CritiCall software borrowed from the Personnel Division, operators are tested on their multitasking skills, the speed and accuracy of their typing, reading comprehension and how well they can prioritize the information gleaned from every call. The software includes 16 such modules and each operator has to pass eight of them to get the job.
Throw in a few workshops in conversational Spanish and another few weeks of actual hands-on training with the system, and you’ll get a good idea of what the entire 50-day training process is like.
The job does come with some perks. Along with becoming a nationally certified first responder, the dispatchers don’t work a regular work week, and have a couple of days off between shifts, giving moms like Taylor some extra time with their children.
But at the same time, each person in the group is also shouldering a lot of responsibility, where everything they’ve learned will get put to the test pretty much from their first few minutes on the job.
A few days after the call center opened on St. Croix, one dispatcher had to deal with an emergency child-birth situation — something that the group’s instructor Avon Chesterfield said was a favorite exercise in class, but a rare and often stressful situation in real life.
More commonly, he added, the calls are about medical emergencies such as heart attacks and strokes, or diabetic attacks, which are a frequent occurrence around the territory.
The operators have been trained in dealing with trauma. And while confident about passing their exams, some are still waiting to see how it will all play out once the phone rings for the very first time.
"Am I nervous? Extremely," Taylor said in a recent interview with the Source. "We’re at the heart now of everything, so of course I have a slight fear of messing up. But I think we’ll all feel a better once we’ve finished the training and learned everything we can. And it helps that I think I’m really going to love what I do."
The New Emergency-911
Since last September, work has been underway in both districts to turn the existing police dispatch into a true 911 system, which focuses on everything from bringing in new state-of-the-art equipment to selecting operators that really have what it takes to handle each call that comes in, according to V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency (VITEMA) head Mark Walters.
Walking through the new 911 call center on St. Thomas — located on the bottom floor of the agency’s new headquarters in the old E.D. Plumbing building — Walters shows off the layout, which includes 12 workstations, a pod for the manager or supervisor, a technical support room and a variety of other features, including a fire-suppression system that uses gas instead of water.
Sprinklers would damage the equipment, but with the new system, everything can keep running and quickly become operational after the fire is extinguished, Walters explained.
"Right now, the operators are working on folding tables in a very cramped space," he said. "We’re trying to put as many resources at their fingertips because we’re expecting a higher level of performance here, just like the community has higher expectations overall for 911."
Each work station is equipped with five monitors, which gives the operator all the information they need to handle the emergency. Unlike the current system, nothing is entered manually, but is instead digitally voice recorded and timed as soon as the call comes in.
Under the current system, there are instances when the information is first written down and later entered into the system — a practice that sometimes causes confusion in court, where operators are often asked to review their records and pinpoint the exact time a call comes in.
"The other thing we’re doing is routing all emergency calls through 911," Walters explained. And whether it’s a fire, robbery or emergency childbirth situation, the 911 operators are trained to stay on the line with each caller until help arrives, providing guidance where necessary.
And once GPS devices are activated within the various agencies, 911 dispatchers will be able to locate the nearest first responder and direct them to the scene, he said.
Broadband connections from each local carrier run into the call center, and outside, lines from Innovative Communications are buried underground, Walters said. These features help to eliminate the biggest complaint local residents have about E-911 — the frequency of dropped and rerouted calls.
Now, not only is each call answered in something like eight seconds, but in case something happens at the center on St. Croix, St. Thomas can pick up the load — and vice-versa, Walters said.
And if the power goes out, there’s a generator and a backup generator, along with a 52-minute battery supply that will keep things running if one of the generators doesn’t kick in right away.
Meanwhile, the gaps in coverage that have kept first responders from communicating in areas such as Carambola on St. Croix are being filled.
"It’s more than just putting up towers," Walters said. "It’s about redoing the whole infrastructure. Everything had to be duplicated to support four islands. It’s no little project — it’s been a complete overhaul."
And with VITEMA taking on two other projects at the same time, the year-long process hasn’t been easy. But the new system is already winning over first responders such as Chesterfield, who said anything that could help the emergency agencies communicate better is definitely "a great benefit to the territory."
"We’ll be getting more information than we were before," he said. "This kind of call taking, it’s really going help us be better at protecting the patient and ourselves. So the center, it’s really the piece that ties the agencies and the people we’re serving together."
The St. Thomas center is scheduled to open at the end of the month, Walters said.