Arnold AFB emergency dispatchers play significant role in protecting lives, property

  • Published
  • By Bradley Hicks
  • AEDC Public Affairs

It could be the worst day of someone’s life.

The probability that someone calling to report an emergency and request assistance could be experiencing enormous levels of stress and chaos isn’t lost on the Arnold Air Force Base Fire and Emergency Services dispatchers.

Members of this team are conscious that theirs may be the first voice the caller hears in an emergency situation and, no matter the nature of the call, remain unwavering in their goal of quickly and calmly getting help on the way.

“The dispatchers we have assigned to this base, I would put them up against anybody in the Department of Defense,” said Christian Lyle, Arnold FES Fire Prevention and Communications officer. “I feel confident in saying that Arnold is safer by having them on duty.”

Now is the ideal time to celebrate these dispatchers for their efforts to protect assets and lives. April 10-16 is National Public Safety Telecommunications Week. NPSTW is observed annually as a way to honor telecommunicators. At first a local initiative, NPSTW was started by Patricia Anderson in Contra Costa County, California, in 1981. In 1994, then-President Bill Clinton signed a proclamation declaring the second week of April as NPSTW.

The main objective of Arnold FES is to protect Arnold AFB property and personnel, and the emergency dispatchers play a significant role. They field emergency calls, obtain the necessary information from the caller and relay the information to emergency responders to get them in route to the location of the emergency. Such emergencies may include fires, medical emergencies, vehicle collisions, confined space rescues and situations involving hazardous materials. The dispatchers are also responsible for monitoring all alarms across Arnold AFB and tracking munitions on base.

“There are a lot of hardworking, dedicated people who work on this base, and they can perform their jobs better if they know that they have a safety net in place if they were to need us,” said Ginger Dyer, Arnold AFB Emergency Communications Center coordinator.

The dispatchers must be ready for anything since they never know what the next call may hold.

“We can be here and everything is quiet then, all of the sudden, something can go bad,” said Mitsy Pickett, Emergency Communications Center operator.

The Arnold FES dispatch team is made up of eight members with more than a century of combined emergency dispatch experience. At least two dispatchers are staffed on each shift, and the Emergency Communications Center is manned 24/7, including holidays.

“We have a really good team,” Dyer said. “Everybody here doing this has been doing it for a very long time.”

Joining Dyer and Pickett on the team are Emergency Communications Center leads Terri Rigney, Missy DeFord and JaeLeia Morris, and Emergency Communications Center operators Elizabeth Carter, Samantha Robinson and Russell Meeks.

When a call comes in, the countdown begins.

Standards dictate that emergency dispatchers have a scant 60 seconds to gather information from often, and understandably, frantic callers and provide this information to responders.

“They’re very proficient in getting the required information,” Lyle said of the Arnold FES dispatchers. “They’re very proficient in knowing what the incident commander is going to ask for and providing that information before they even ask for it.”

Dyer said it’s the combination of experience and continuous training that helps dispatchers keep callers calm while maintaining their own.

Arnold FES dispatchers are emergency medical dispatch, or EMD, certified. This permits the dispatchers to, when applicable, provide medical instructions to callers while responders proceed to the location of the emergency. To ensure their EMD training remains up-to-date, the dispatchers must complete a minimum of 12 continuing education credits per year. They must also recertify in EMD and CPR every two years. The latter certification allows the dispatchers to walk callers through the resuscitation process until help arrives.

“We keep our continuing education hours up for EMD,” Dyer said. “They provide monthly training for everything from information dissemination to time tracking. Everything that we do, we maintain training on.”

The dispatchers are nationally certified through both the Association of Public Safety Communication Officials and the International Fire Service Accreditation Congress. All dispatch leads are Fire Instructor 1 certified. This gives these dispatchers the ability to better instruct and train new dispatchers.

Arnold FES is directly responsible for responding to any emergency on Arnold AFB property, including those along Wattendorf Memorial Highway. The department also responds to emergencies that occur along Interstate 24 within 1 mile of Exit 117 in either direction.

Arnold FES has in place mutual aid agreements with several volunteer fire departments in Franklin and Coffee counties. Whenever these agencies need help, such as an extra tanker to combat a structural fire or additional manpower, they may contact Arnold FES dispatch to request it. Arnold FES is required to protect Arnold AFB at all times, but Dyer said the department does everything in its power to provide mutual aid when a request is made.

Dyer estimates mutual aid requests out of Coffee County have made up around 30 percent of the Arnold FES emergency dispatch call volume so far this year. She doesn’t recall an instance in her approximately eight years with Arnold FES in which the department has declined a mutual aid request.

“When they’re short-staffed, we can help them, and that’s what we try to do while leaving the base protected at the same time,” Dyer said.

And while they have access to mapping software, the dispatchers have made a concerted effort to familiarize themselves with the area surrounding Arnold to further aid responders.

“Dispatchers save seconds. Seconds save lives,” Dyer said. “If you know where you’re sending them, you can help a lot.”

The Arnold FES dispatchers bring to the job prior experience working in civilian dispatch centers. Dyer said while the pace may be a little faster in a county or municipal dispatch center due to greater call volumes, the work performed at Arnold in support of national defense brings a new degree of gravity to each on-base emergency.

“There’s billions of dollars of assets on this base along with people and property, so it’s a different level of importance,” she said.

Pickett, who has been at Arnold for the past 11 years following a 14-year career as an emergency dispatcher in Franklin County, concurred.

“In here it’s a little slower paced but, then again, a small accident on this base can cause a major problem, whereas a small incident out there may affect a block or two,” Pickett said. “I didn’t realize how important this base was until I came out here. It’s very important. There’s a lot of good work that goes on out here.”

Dyer and Pickett also agree it is satisfying to have a hand in keeping Arnold and those employed at the installation safe.

“Arnold is a very unique base, and it’s very rewarding to know you’re doing some part to keep a level of safety and security here,” Dyer said.

Arnold FES dispatchers must report to work even in the event of inclement weather.

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted both additional training by the dispatchers to assist responders and some logistical changes to ensure day-to-day emergency dispatch operations were unaffected.

Lyle commended the flexibility of the dispatchers and their ability to adapt.

“Their dedication, not only to the department but to the mission of this base, is superior,” he said. “Like I said, I would put them up against anybody.”