The 911 emergency service has long served as a beacon of hope for citizens and in some cases, even been a lifeline in the face of catastrophe.
Carbon County's 911 line has been a vital emergency resource for residents since it first started taking calls in August of 1993. To date, about 148,000 calls are made each year to Carbon's 911 center.
Two of the most tragic stories in Pennsylvania's recent history – the shooting rampage in an Amish school house in Lancaster County in 2006 and the crash in Somerset County of Flight 93, the plane hijacked by 9/11 terrorists – were both first reported through 911 calls.
The Flight 93 call in 2001 was received at the Westmoreland County 911 center, located several miles from where the plane exploded into the ground, killing all 45 people aboard. The caller said he was locked in a lavatory and that the plane was hijacked. Seconds later the line went dead.
These are two extreme examples of tragedies with mass casualties, but we are reminded that communications centers are trained to handle any type of emergency. This week, the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency is recognizing the state's emergency dispatchers for their vital role.
In Pennsylvania, 69 public safety answering centers serve as the primary point for answering 911 calls and dispatching police, fire and emergency medical services. The approximately 4,300 telecommunicators answer more than 9 million 911 calls each year, providing life-saving medical instructions to callers; contacting law enforcement, transportation and public works departments; activating weather alerts; and managing requests for specialized response teams such as coroners, SWAT teams and accident reconstruction teams.
Last week, Carbon County commissioners adopted a resolution recognizing the 911 telecommunicators, which it referred to as a "silent service," since the workers are seldom recognized by the public. It stated that the safety of our police officers, firefighters and emergency medical services is dependent on the quality and accuracy of information obtained from citizens who call the center.
A concern of county officials is that people use the 911 line for other than emergencies, such as weather or road conditions, thus tying up telephone lines and dispatchers.
Another problem is the growing number of people using the Internet to make calls. Providing an accurate address is critically important, especially when making a wireless 911 call.
One Dauphin County official said as new technologies emerge, dispatch centers will have to change their systems in order to meet the demand to figure out where these people calling in are located.
Emergency dispatchers warn that if you use Voice mail IP's – services that let you make calls through the Internet – make sure you register your service with your existing address.
Another tip for anyone who accidentally dials 911 is to not hang up. When the 911 center answers, simply explain to the call taker that the telephone call was accidentally made and there is no emergency. Telecommunicators are trained to return 911 abandoned or hang-up calls.
There are resources available to help citizens prepare and respond to emergencies. Families can find downloadable materials such as home and car emergency kit checklists and emergency plan templates at www.ReadyPA.org  or by calling 1-888-9-READYPA.
By Jim Zbick