BELFAST, Maine — Five years ago, the life of an elderly Waldo County woman was saved because of a 911 call that wasn’t made.
The woman was part of the Waldo County Regional Communications Center’s Friendly Caller program. Because she lived alone, she signed up to call the center every morning, and if dispatchers hadn’t heard from her by 10 a.m., they would give her a call.
When that woman didn’t call, and didn’t answer her phone, dispatchers jumped into action. They notified the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office, which sent a deputy to check on her right away.
“She was lying on the floor. She’d been there all night,” recalled Owen Smith, director of the center.
He and other dispatch center officials are working to spread the word about the Friendly Caller program, which had about 20 participants when it began eight years ago. That number has dwindled over the years, but they believe that the need is out there among county residents — and they know they could handle as many as 50 calls each day. The program offers people like that woman a chance to hear a friendly voice for a few moments in the morning, an opportunity to let someone know that they are OK.
“It’s a great program,” Smith said. “I think it’s worthwhile.”
That program is just one way the dispatch center works to provide county residents with good service — something that’s especially important in the stressful situations that typically cause emergency calls, dispatchers said.
The communications center serves as the dispatch center for all law, fire and emergency medical systems as well as the county’s public safety answering point. It came online in 2001, after the merger of dispatching facilities and personnel from the city of Belfast and the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office.
Dispatchers there respond to all land lines within the county as well as 911 calls originating from US Cellular cell phones, and they do so 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Andy Cardinale is one of those dispatchers.
On a recent snowy day, he said, the center handled about 50 calls by noon, although most of those had been minor accidents with no injury. Cardinale and the other dispatchers working inside the center still seemed calm, their good humor unaffected by the snowstorm.
He said that he has been working in Emergency Medical Services for 28 years, and one reason is the chance to help people.
“I really enjoy it,” Cardinale said. “It’s not the best-paying job I’ve ever had, but it’s the best job I’ve ever had.”
He and the other dispatchers work together very well, he said, adding that no matter how many years they’ve manned the phone lines, responding to 911 calls could never become rote.
“Our adrenaline goes up as soon as [the phone] rings,” Cardinale said.
He explained how the 911 system works and showed the two computer screens dedicated to those calls. One screen featured a map showing where the 911 calls originated. The accuracy is great with calls that originate from landlines, he said, and are less precise for 911 calls from cell phones.
Another computer screen showed the changing locations of police officers and emergency crews. The dispatch center seems like a nerve center for Waldo County. When 911-emergency calls come in, dispatchers are the first defense. They’re able to direct firefighters or police to the scenes of crashes and more. They also have special emergency medical dispatch training that teaches them how to handle troubles such as heart attacks and much more.
“We get them all,” Smith said. “We are really a lifeline in some cases.”
He said the best thing county residents could do to assist dispatchers and emergency responders is to clearly number their houses.
And Cardinale and the other dispatchers, busy working behind the scenes of Waldo County emergencies, said that most people don’t realize or remember that they are the first responders to most events.
“People forget about dispatch,” Cardinale said, smiling.
Each dispatcher has those bad calls they’ll never forget, he said.
Such as the people who call 911 during a medical emergency but pass away on the phone before help can arrive.
“It’s a very intense job sometimes,” Cardinale said. “The bottom line is, if we help one person, it’s a success.”
For more information about the Friendly Caller program, call 338-2040.