Terra Culley, front, and Melissa Middleton work dispatch stations at the Wri-Tex E911 office in Houston. Middleton is one of two remaining members of the original staff from when the agency began operation in January of 1995. A measure to save the service in Texas County is on the April 8 ballot.

We’ve all heard them on TV and radio news reports — startling recordings of phone conversations between 911 dispatchers and people (young and old) calling to report a problem.

From coast to coast, the scenario plays out time and again, day after day, as individuals dealing with everything from burglary to bodily harm grab the closest phone and punch in three famous numbers.

When such calls for help originate in Texas and Wright Counties, they’re answered by dispatchers stationed at the office of Wri-Tex E911, on the grounds of Texas County Memorial Hospital in Houston. It’s a small, unassuming workplace, but the job being accomplished there is wide-ranging and complex.

“A lot of people don’t realize how much is involved in dispatching,” director Donna Robertson said. “And we cover a pretty big area, so there’s a lot to know.”

The first 911 service in Missouri to serve two counties, Wri-Tex 911 began operation in January 1995, after voters in both counties approved funding through a landline telephone surcharge in the fall of 1993. The operation is overseen by a board consisting of the three commissioners of each county, and it currently has 12 employees, including eight full-time and three part-time dispatchers.

A lifelong Texas County resident, Robertson has been with Wri-Tex 911 since May 1995 and assumed the director position in 2006. Along the way, she has done most of the digital mapping of the coverage area in the firm’s computer system.

The Wri-Tex 911 office is equipped with three public safety answering points (or PSAPs), and at least two dispatchers are on duty at all times. They deal with 32 response agencies, including medical, law enforcement, fire, helicopter, hazardous materials and others.

“It can get pretty complicated when you’re on a call and needing to contact several agencies at the same time,” Robertson said. “And like with a lot of other things, when it rains, it pours, and everything seems to come in threes. If we get one call, we usually get three.”

If one dispatcher fields a call and the other isn’t busy with another call, they’ll combine their efforts to get the right responders dispatched. But when multiple calls simultaneously come in, each must make all the contacts on their own.

In order for dispatchers to know which agency to contact in a given situation, the Wri-Tex 911 coverage area is split into zones, each with a designated “emergency service number,” or ESN.

“We want to make sure we send the right people,” Robertson said. “It’s critical that we know who to contact.”

Before being cleared to man a PSAP, dispatchers must complete intensive three-week training and attend several classes to become certified in Priority Emergency Medical Dispatch by National Academies. They work in eight-hour shifts, referred to as “straight eights,” since breaks are not automatically part of the job description. Shifts go from midnight to 8 a.m., 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and 4 p.m. to midnight.

“It’s really not a good idea to walk out that door, because as soon as you do, that phone is going to ring,” Robertson said.

Wri-Tex 911 dispatchers don’t use the “10 codes” popular with law enforcement and other agencies that communicate by radio. Instead, they speak in plain English language.

“We’ve gotten away from that,” Robertson said. “We don’t want to make a mistake and use a 10-code that somebody might not understand. I figure in time, it will become mandatory that nobody uses them.”

With the huge increase of cellular phone use across the United States, funding of agencies like Wri-Tex 911 has become an issue. Some Missouri counties have taken the situation into their own hands by passing sales taxes to help fund 911 service, and federal grants from agencies such as Homeland Security are available.

But landline phone fees are the primary source of 911 funding, and to date, 49 states have addressed the issue of shrinking landline numbers by requiring 911 surcharges on cell phone bills. Robertson laments the fact that Missouri is the only state that hasn’t.

“As people continue to disconnect their landlines, we’re losing revenue every month,” she said. “We’ve really relied on Homeland Security for a lot of things lately, like a new repeater that’s going up in northern Wright County. I recently went to a 911 directors day in Jefferson City. One of the things we wanted to let them know we need money.”

The way the communication pendulum has swung away from landlines and toward cellular is clearly illustrated in Wri-Tex 911’s call statistics. In a typical month, close to twice as many calls come in from cell phones than landline phones.

“That’s where our money is going,” Robertson said.

Unfortunately, prank calls — especially ones from young kids with cell phones — are always a potential problem in 911 circles.

“You can’t hang up on a bad call,” Robertson said, “and when you’re on one, a real call inevitably comes in.”

But regardless of how calls come in, an experienced dispatcher is going to eventually deal with a wide variety of issues. Robertson remembers taking calls involving everything from a woman with her toe stuck in the bathtub faucet to being able to hear a domestic assault in progress.

“We get good calls and we get bad calls,” she said. “Sometimes you really wonder what the people who call are thinking, but other calls will stick with you forever.

“And just when you think you’ve heard it all, a call comes in that will just flabbergast you.”

And just when you think you’ve heard it all, a call comes inthat will just flabbergast you.”

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