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Behind the Scenes: The Unseen Worker

Cindy Geiger - Watch Officer Cindy Geiger - Watch Officer

In times of emergency, 911 callers rely on first responders to arrive on the scene to provide direct assistance. But it's 911 dispatchers like Reading resident Cindy Geiger who work behind the scenes to make sure the right kind of help is on its way.

Geiger works the 10-hour day shift as a watch officer at Berks County Department of Emergency Services’ 911 Communications Center in Reading. As a watch officer, she supervises the day-to-day operations at the Communications Center, including overseeing 12-15 dispatchers, troubleshooting technical issues and answering calls, if needed.

Call takers answer calls to the county’s 911 lines for life-threatening emergencies (critical injuries, entrapment, house fires, etc.) and the 10-digit line for non-life-threatening emergencies (noise complaints, cats in trees, etc.). Radio operators dispatch the appropriate police, fire department and/or ambulance crews, or contact the appropriate assistance for all other calls.

“You never know what you’re going to get when you answer that phone,” Geiger says.

“You can have hours of mundane, routine calls and then minutes of chaos.” On average, the center receives 500-600 calls a day to both the 911 number and the 10-digit number. A busy day can produce upwards of 800 to 1,000 calls. In the first half of this year, the center received and made nearly 340,000 phone calls.  

When a 911 call comes into the center, call takers must obtain the caller’s location, township or borough, and then ascertain the problem, not to mention do their best to keep frantic callers focused.

“We’re trained to control the chaos the caller is immersed in,” Geiger says. “We use a lot of repetition to make sure all the details are given to us. We have to break their tunnel vision to get the information we need and put them in the right frame of mind.”

Types of calls vary greatly, but 911 telecommunicators aim for the same end result. “We want a positive outcome,” Geiger says. “Our ultimate goal is to have everyone satisfied with the service they received. We want them to feel like they’ve been given options to fix their problem.”

Every telecommunicator receives ongoing Emergency Medical Dispatch training to learn how to provide first-aid and CPR instructions over the phone as well as the instructions needed to deliver babies. They must also pass ongoing certifications by the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

Geiger began her career as a dispatcher with the Communications Center 30 years ago – five years before Berks County officially implemented the 911 system – and worked her way up to watch officer.

During her early years, the center dispatched 20 police departments, five fire companies and three ambulance crews. Today, the center dispatches 42 police departments, 59 fire companies and 17 ambulance crews.

She says the biggest changes to impact her field are technology (an enhanced radio system will be put into place by the end of 2014) and the rise of the cell phone.

While both have been positive changes, cell phones have introduced new challenges to dispatchers: unlike landlines, cell phones do not provide a location when a person calls the center; individuals often pocket dial 911; and children accidentally dial 911 when given an old cell phone to use as a toy.

“One little girl had called the center 67 times in one hour,” Geiger recalls. “Parents need to remember that even though a cell phone might not have paid service, it can still dial 911 as long as it has a charge. That is an FCC regulation.”

Geiger will retire March 10, 2015. She plans to enjoy camping and spending quality time with her family and friends. But first, she will leave March 15 for a much-deserved seven-day cruise to the Southern Caribbean.

 “I’m going to put my feet up and not answer the phone for a week,” Geiger jokes.

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