To say that Juliette Gooding and her staff have heard it all is an understatement.
They get calls from people asking them to call the airport to tell them they’re stuck in traffic.
They get calls asking them to contact friends or relatives for them because their cell phones are out of minutes.
They get calls asking for homework help.
They get calls about cable outages; about lost pets; and broken televisions.
They get humorous calls.
They get silly calls.
They get angry calls.
And they get serious calls.
But the only calls Ms Gooding and her staff want are the ones that pertain only to real-life emergencies.
Ms Gooding is manager of the 911 Emergency Communications Centre.
This year it’s celebrating its 10th anniversary and valuable contribution to the Cayman Islands.
‘We have, over the years, processed humorous calls, strange calls and very serious, sad calls. I think I can safely say that for all the staff, calls involving children or young people who die tragically are the worst ones,’ she said.
The centre has come a long ways since its inception in October 1996 when reports were manually written and logged into the police system to today, where 911 has immediate access to the police logging system.
The centre was first established on the third floor of the Central Police Station. Staff training began in June that year, the centre officially opened to the public in September 1996.
Today the centre is on the fifth floor of Citrus Grove building on Goring Avenue.
Four supervisors – Nadine Davis, Lennox Vernon, Jaonne Tiley and Skeeter Robinson – oversee 10 to 12 operators.
Aiding Ms Gooding in administration are Administrative Assistant Elorine Augustin and Deputy Manager Sonji Myles.
‘It’s been a journey and along that journey the beauty of 911 has always been that we always try to do our best,’ said Mr. Lennox Vernon, Telecommunications supervisor.
Ms Gooding concurs.
‘Sometimes people are angry during their emergency but when they calm down some will call back and apologise because they realise they were unreasonable or just taking out their frustration on 911,’ she said. ‘Yes we do have criticisms; some unfounded and some real. However we welcome both – we need to know what is working well so we can keep doing it and what is not working well so we can fix it.’
One of the most trying times for staff at the centre was during Hurricane Ivan when the police, fire and EMT services could not send anyone out to help because the storm was pounding Grand Cayman.
‘Even though we could not send help, we knew people were in distress and we acted as a voice to give them guidance. One of the lines used most often was to stay high and dry and take care of your family.’
Although 911 rarely gets thanked for the services they provide, Mr. Vernon said when they do it feels good and carries them on for days.
‘We do a lot more than just answer the phones. Operators are sent out with the fire, police and EMTs to get an idea of what takes place in the field. This broadens their understanding of what is needed and way it is needed. The 911 operators must also have some medical knowledge.’
Mr. Vernon said compared to 10 years ago the workload has increased. ‘Crime grows and with that there are more services needed,’ he said.
911 services has adapted to include training programmes so that when personnel come on board they are up-to-date.
The training programme is done in-house using the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials programme.
Although Mr. Vernon says the public sometimes think operators ask too many questions, he wants the public to understand that operators do not know the callers so they have to start from zero. They have to collect information and while doing that, also make sure the person is safe as they forward the information on to the relevant services.
‘Most people do not know what it really takes to make a department like this one succeed but it involves a lot of hard work, dedication, constant training. The hardest part is trying to find the right calibre of personnel to work in this environment; people who are able to use common sense coupled with the training they are given, people are in this business not just to have a job,’ said Ms Gooding. ‘The staff must bring to the job the willingness to serve others regardless of whether it is appreciated or not, a willingness to be a part of a team and dedication to their duty and to each other.
The Portfolio of Internal and External Affairs has authority over 911 and is supporting the centre’s anniversary dinner where there will be an opportunity to express thanks to the staff and other agencies who work tirelessly with 911.
‘For me as the manager, sometime I feel overwhelmed and just tired. However when I see a member of staff saved someone’s life, or someone calls to encourage me or to say they think I am doing a great job or even when some of my staff are positive about me as a manager and do everything they can to keep me smiling, it is all worth it,’ Ms Gooding said.