In case of emergency, dial 911. The advice is sound; the number is memorable. The caller is usually experiencing some level of distress. So, who takes the call?
Dan Bellesfield, Lehigh County's 911 operations and training coordinator, trains the operators and designs the procedures to keep the emergency communications system reliable and efficient.
Bellesfield grew up in Allentown and later lived in Salisbury Township. The son of an Allentown firefighter, he views his involvement with emergency services as a "natural transition."
After high school, Bellesfield left a job in the private sector to become a 911 dispatcher. His employment change fulfilled a lifelong goal.
"I can clearly remember in high school wanting to do this job," Bellesfield said.
Like all successful 911 operators, Bellesfield enjoys a career focused on helping others. However, rendering assistance requires more than just a good heart. In addition to remaining calm under pressure, operators are well versed in map reading and multitasking. They pay attention to details and "think on their feet."
When a call comes in, the operator simultaneously collects information from the caller and works with several computers to classify the call, provide instructions to the caller and dispatch the appropriate responder. As Bellesfield explains, one may "easily become overwhelmed."
Bellesfield's additional 20 years of experience as a Salisbury Township volunteer firefighter and EMT help keep him well prepared for the task at hand.
Trainees learn to expect periods of high activity. Since every emergency cannot be anticipated, operators must often think independently in order to develop creative solutions.
Each of the 31 members of the dispatch staff, five of whom are supervisors, can work in any position. Positions include a north and a south police dispatcher, a 911 call operator, a fire and EMT dispatcher and a scope operator. (The scope operator employs the computer to support law enforcement: background checks, license searches, etc.)
"I cannot give our staff enough accolades," Bellsfield said.
The unit's flexibility became apparent during a recent emergency. Because the caller was using a cell phone in a rural area, the operator could not pinpoint the site of the call. By coordinating their efforts, the staff devised a solution. They arranged for fire trucks to be positioned throughout the area. As each siren resounded in turn, the caller relayed the volume and direction of the sound to an operator. The teamwork paid off. They gradually narrowed the search until appropriate assistance was dispatched to the caller's exact location.
To fully prepare operators for such diverse situations, Bellesfield employs a comprehensive training program.
The trainee begins work in a classroom; learning theory and how to effectively manipulate equipment without distractions. Trainees then move to the 911 center, learning to work closely with an experienced trainer for approximately six months. The novice watches and listens to the trainer's fields calls, eventually moving from data entry and handling basic nonemergency calls to working as an independent operator.
Bellesfield stressed the vital role trainers play in the evolution of confident and effective operators.
The success of this philosophy is evident in the low turnover rate of Lehigh County 911 operators. From nonemergency to crime-in-progress situations, the scenarios vary constantly. In addition, all 911 calls receive a response. In crises like Hurricane Sandy, the staff works overtime, sometimes sleeping at the center. Bellesfield applauds the willingness of the operators to "step up" as needed.
Education in stress relief management and sometimes just "talking it out" allow Bellesfield and his staff to control their stress levels. Critical Incident Stress Management, a regional team, provides another outlet for both operators and emergency responders.
Kudos to Dan Bellesfield and his team who manipulate complex computer systems in order to rapidly connect those in crisis with emergency responders. The rest of us merely need to remember, "In case of emergency, dial 911."
NOTE: Nonemergency callers may use 610-437-5252 for assistance.