Wayne King is one of those unsung heroes working quietly behind the scenes doing his best to keep the citizens of Vinton and Roanoke County safe and secure. He is retiring on December 31 from his position as a Communications Officer at the Roanoke County Emergency Communication Center (ECC) on Cove Road.
His is a job with stringent standards– difficult to qualify for and challenging to maintain stamina for over a long period of time. His 25 years in the position are, in fact, rare. In his years as a dispatcher, only six of his colleagues have reached that milestone.
Using state-of-the–art equipment and the latest computer software, the Roanoke County ECC handles 911 calls via traditional telephones as well as cell phones from citizens of and visitors to Roanoke County.
The ECC also handles non-emergency calls requesting assistance and information. The Communication Officers then dispatch the appropriate equipment and personnel to handle the emergency or citizen request.
King has lived his entire life in Roanoke, except for four years he spent in the Air Force. After his military service, he worked for Holdren’s for 13 years, and then applied for jobs with dispatch and with Fire and Rescue. He ended up as a dispatcher probably due in part to the fact that in the Air Force he had worked on radios and intercoms in aircraft, so he had experience and expertise in the field.
When King went through the hiring process, the whole process took up to six months.
Now, everything is scheduled for one day. There is a typing test (you must be able to type 25 words/minute); physical tests emphasizing hearing and vision; checks on criminal and driving history; four hours of psychological evaluations with several interviewers, and observation of dispatchers at work. Applicants seem to be eliminated from consideration at each evaluation step along the way.
King says that the application process is tough. On one occasion, 16 applicants submitted their applications; 12 showed up for testing, and only two made it all the way through the process to be hired.
Once you are hired, you are still a long way from working independently. It can take from three to six months after submitting the application and qualifying for the dispatcher position to be able to work on your own. There are three to six months of probationary supervision—after all, lives are at stake. New dispatchers train with peers, learn policies, procedures, codes, and how to communicate on the radio.
One woman completed the strenuous application process and was hired, but left after a week because of the pressure of the job. King says dispatchers have to adapt to doing “three, four, or five things” at the same time.
He says that while the job can be very rewarding, he wouldn’t recommend it to just anyone. It takes a certain personality type for emergency dispatch work. Those who do best generally tend to be calm, organized, and have a good sense of humor. Successful dispatchers must be able to get past a “bad call” and go on to the next one.
King defines “bad calls” as those involving a tragic situation, a suicide or suicide threat, a vehicular accident involving injuries or fatalities, fires, violent crimes, or missing persons, especially children.
“The dispatcher’s job is to be calm and to calm down the caller to get more information and send officers to assist them,” said King.
In his early years, King says that he would “stress out at times” but now he has “learned to leave it all behind” when his shift ends.
Dispatchers at the ECC work with the Roanoke County Police, Roanoke County Fire and Rescue, the Vinton Police, Vinton Fire and EMS, and the Roanoke County Sheriff’s Department. Dispatchers keep close watch on all law enforcement vehicles that have been marked out for service.
They also receive non-emergency calls and after-hours calls for situations such as Public Works might handle. In that case, they call the person who is on-call for that department to deal with.
King says there is no rhyme or reason as to when the call center will be busiest— it varies. Weekends, weekdays, days, nights— there is generally no pattern to when things will be quiet and when calls will come pouring in.
King does say that it is predictable that the call volume will increase during severe weather such as recent flooding and record-setting snowfall. In one severe storm, they received 300 calls in about five hours.
The 911 Emergency Dispatch Center was originally located just off Peters Creek Road until the new state-of-the-art facility was completed in 2006. The computer systems have been updated quite a few times in the intervening years.
The ECC employees 36 communication officers/dispatchers, with six supervisors, bringing the total number of employees to 42.
Dispatchers work 40-hour weeks in 12-hour shifts, either 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. or vice versa. They generally work two days, then are off two days; work three days and are off two more days.
Each shift is staffed by eight or nine employees, with two monitoring the police, one monitoring Vinton, one on Fire and EMS, a couple taking calls, and some doing backup.
When the dispatchers arrive each day or night, they find their schedules at their consoles, one for the first half of the day and another for the last half— to change things up and keep alert.
When calls come in, they are recorded automatically; data is stored continually– anything said is recorded, every key strike is recorded, all radio talk is recorded.
All consoles display the same set of screens. When a call is received, the computer comes up with specific recommendations for the situation and how to get resources.
When the call concerns a medical emergency, the dispatchers have a set of emergency medical cards with medical procedures that the dispatcher reads off word-by-word to the caller in attempting such strategies as CPR.
King says that every day and every situation are different. You never know what to expect when the call comes in. Thankfully, not all calls involve a crisis.
Once a woman called alarmed that someone was trying to break into her basement. The dispatcher heard a noise inside the basement, steps coming up the stairs, the door opening— and then silence. Turns out, the next-door neighbor was intoxicated and entered the wrong home.
Once dispatchers monitored a call where a break-in seemed to be in process– in the end, it was a cat. For a time, an elderly lady called each night in the early morning hours at 3 a.m. to check to see if her clock was correct.
They monitor pursuits, some of which go on for long periods of time and even across several jurisdictions. Dispatchers try to notify neighboring jurisdictions if they have a pursuit potentially crossing into their territory.
Vinton Fire and EMS Deputy Chief Chris Linkous notes, “My experience with Wayne has been great. He is an awesome dispatcher who has those qualities that you want out of a dispatcher. For example, he is calm on the radio; he is easy to understand when he dispatches, and when I, as an Incident Commander on an incident, request a resource, he is quick to contact said resource and get it to us. He is a seasoned dispatcher who is very good at what he does, and he will be sorely missed.”
As for his retirement plans, King says simply he plans “to take a trip.”