By Dave Russell
Telecommunicator Brent Allison sits at a desk in the 911 Dispatch Center, silhouetted by the light of seven computer screens.
A call comes in about a man with a gun.
“He’s got it on his person?” he calmly asks the caller. “Handgun or long gun? Do you happen to know what caliber by chance? I’ll update the officer. We’ve got one on the way.”
Allison contacts law enforcement en route with valuable – and perhaps life-saving – information.
“He does have it on him, it’s a .380,” he says.
Banks of computer screens illuminate other desks around the large, darkened room.
One screen is for maps, a green dot showing the location of a 911 caller based on cell phone triangulation.
“The first thing we get when we get a 911 call is what we call a Phase I,” Allison said. “That gives me your phone number, your cell phone provider and the address of the cell tower that you hit. Phase II is the tower re-transmitting the location of the caller.”
Another computer handles radios. Another connects to N.C. Aware, the state database for outstanding warrants.
One is for Rapid SOS, another tool for locating callers.
“If you have a cell phone and it has its location on, it gives us 99.9 percent accuracy as to where you are,” Allison said. “It can track people for up to 30 minutes after they call.”
It comes in handy when tracking someone lost in the woods.
“If they get up in the mountains and they call us, then we can track them also,” Jackson County 911 Director Belinda Clawson said. “We tell them to stay in one place, this is where we are sending the first responders and they will get up and wander around. But we can’t just put anybody’s phone number in there and have it come up. They have to call 911.”
Another screen displays information such as previously recorded health issues for residents at an address, how often responders have been to that address and what the visits were about. A dispatcher can disseminate that to first responders with the touch of a button.
One screen helps dispatchers gather information and connects to the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems available to each law enforcement officer in the field.
“They can go in and they can read our notes,” she said. “And if there is information out there that we do not want people to hear over the air, we can say ‘There is some information in the CAD when you get time to read it.’”
Another screen connects to the state Division of Criminal Information.
“That’s where we run our vehicle information and it checks warrants throughout the whole United States,” Clawson said.
The 911 center has three possible power sources. Duke Power is the primary. A generator sits outside near the southwest corner of the building.
A stack of backup batteries shares space with computer servers.
“If we do lose power and the generator fails, these batteries are to provide power for about six hours,” Clawson said.
The information on the center’s computers is backed up daily on a tape.
“If we lose everything, the computers go down and it wipes everything clean, then we’ve got it set up so we can reload,” she said. “If for some reason we go completely dark, everything is switched from us to Swain County.”
Jackson County reciprocates by serving as Swain’s backup.
Unlike other counties, the Jackson County 911 Center does not work directly under the auspices of the sheriff’s office.
“We are under Emergency Management,” Clawson said. “We dispatch for all the agencies in the county.”
Visitors to the Dispatch Center should not utter the “q-word.” Quiet.
It is a jinx, sure to light up the phone lines, dispatchers say.
“Very seldom do you get a long break, but sometimes you get a little break, you can go get something to eat, go to the bathroom,” Clawson said.