Public's safety enhanced with upgraded 911 system

By Lydia Goerner | Sep 07, 2017
Photo by: Lydia Goerner Sabina Flaherty, who has been a communications officer for 20 years, answers a call on Wednesday morning.

“What is your emergency?”

Communications officers at the Wareham Police Department ask this question hundreds of times every day. These dispatchers are the “unsung heroes” of the department, said Chief Kevin Walsh.

A new system was just rolled out to make this job easier, Next Generation 9-1-1. Now 911 calls made in town go directly to Wareham rather than first being screened in Framingham. The system also boasts a detailed GPS that allows communications officers to see the exact location a call comes from. This precise mapping system is “unbelievable,” Walsh said.

Next Generation 9-1-1 is being implemented throughout Massachusetts. It is an enhancement of the system that was already in place, which had not been upgraded for years, Walsh said.

“In my 32 years, we’ve come a long, long way,” Walsh said. “I want the public to know what’s on the other end now when they call 911.”

The Wareham Police Department currently employs eight communications officers, highly trained civilian dispatchers who answer close to 50,000 calls a year. Walsh said the communications officers have already benefited from Next Generation 9-1-1, though it has only been in place for a week.

“When they’re impressed with it, I like it, because that means it’s really impressive,” Walsh said.

“They never get enough credit for what they do every day,” Walsh said. “They’re the first line of defense.”

Communications Officer Edward Johnson said one Next Generation 9-1-1 feature he likes is the silent monitor. One officer can listen to the other’s phone conversation without the person on the other end of the line being aware of it. Then, if the communications officer can’t handle the call, the other can “barge into the call and overtake it,” Johnson said. Though this doesn’t often happen, it can be helpful in a difficult situation.

Johnson, who has worked as a communications officer for 23 years, said the pinpointing system on Next Generation 9-1-1 is one of the most useful tools. The latitude and longitude now show seven decimal points, making it “significantly more accurate,” Johnson said, and more detailed than Google Maps.

Communications officers can use the map to measure distance, such as from the road to the middle of the woods, if a call comes from there, making it easier for police to locate a person.

Previously, calls were first screened by state police before being sent to Wareham. Now, cell phone calls go directly to Wareham and communications officers decide if the state or the Wareham Police Department should respond to the call. Because of this, the officers do anticipate a higher volume of calls, said Sabina Flaherty, who has been a communications officer for 20 years.

Though she finds the job rewarding, Flaherty said it is “emotionally exhausting” at times.

“Almost everyone who calls here has a problem,” Flaherty said.

Johnson added that it can be difficult to not get closure on the calls he takes.

“We don’t see what happens after a call,” Johnson said. “You don’t have that end result. You hear what happens, but you don’t get to see what happens.”

Johnson and Flaherty work off each other as a team, seamlessly jumping in if the other is overwhelmed. They both agreed that Next Generation 9-1-1 is an improvement to the old 911 system and can make their job easier.

“I know [the public’s] safety is enhanced when they call 911,” Walsh said. He said people should have confidence knowing a “high-grade system” is being used when they call with an emergency.

Communications Officer Edward Johnson must multitask as he answers 911 calls, working off his teammate Sabina Flaherty (left). (Photo by: Lydia Goerner)
Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.