The most-dialed number in Frederick County may be 911 — averaging about 304 calls a day — but the people who pick up aren’t always the most popular with callers.
“We’re probably the last number that the people of Frederick County want to call. ... But we’ll always be there to help,” said Jack Markey, director of the county’s Division of Emergency Management.
For those willing to dedicate to 12-hour workdays four days a week with few breaks and an usually high amount of stress, accolades aren’t the end goal, said Jeff Lowman, Emergency Communications Center manager. Being as helpful and efficient as possible are the only ambitions to which most call-takers and dispatchers aspire.
“I don’t think anybody in this center, myself included, does this job to get recognized with awards,” Lowman said.
Still, Lowman and the rest of the ECC’s “C Shift” have good reason to be proud. Within about two months, C Shift handled two highly stressful emergencies in 2014: a dangerous loss of power at the ECC on Aug. 28 and the deadly midair collision between two aircraft over Frederick Municipal Airport on Oct. 23.
At a regional awards ceremony set for April 25 after the close of National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, C Shift will be among 21 call-takers and dispatchers from Frederick County receiving awards for exemplary performance.
For both Lowman and Karlea Brown, who handled the Aug. 28 power failure on one of Lowman’s days off and took calls during the midair collision, the awards ceremony April 25 will just be a broader acknowledgment of the skill of county dispatchers.
“To see them operate so flawlessly in the times it really mattered — I mean, they handled both the power outage and the helicopter-airplane collision months apart from one another, so that’s a huge thing,” Brown said.
Additionally, four Frederick Police Department dispatchers will be recognized at the ceremony for taking charge of the hundreds of calls received from frantic students, parents and other witnesses in the wake of a shooting outside a high school basketball game in the city on Feb. 4.
“Once the initial calls had come in, the phones were still ringing off the hook,” said John White, the city police dispatch supervisor working that night.
“We were even getting calls from the national media almost immediately after the call came out.”
On top of a news media blitz and a steady stream of calls, White’s shift coordinated more than 50 city police units on the scene and handled more than 750 radio transmissions in the hour after the first 911 calls.
Before 2013, the city police call center and the rest of the county’s emergency communications were housed separately, with county call-takers based at the Law Enforcement Center and city employees working at Frederick police headquarters, Markey said.
The merger dropped calls to the ECC by 40,000 a year, representing the amount of 911 call transfers between county call-takers and city dispatchers, Markey said. Nowadays, city and county dispatchers share the same space with state police and state highway dispatchers, streamlining the process, Lowman said.
However, having a central location can make a power loss like the one ECC employees dealt with last August even more dangerous.
“It took about 10 minutes for the phone system to get back up,” Brown recalled. “And during that time, 911 calls don’t go anywhere. They just ring and ring and ring.”
ECC employees re-established connection with the county’s first responders within minutes of the power loss, which was eventually traced back to a backup generator failure during an otherwise routine test.
“I think the biggest compliment we received was when units in the field told us they didn’t even realize there had been a problem,” Brown said.