It is a dark room, dimly lit by the glow of computer screens at the desks where folks sit wearing telephone headsets and waiting for bad news.
Our bad news. Few people are in a good mood by the time they dial those three familiar numerals to reach the Glynn-Brunswick 911 Center, located at the county’s Public Safety Complex off Golden Isles Parkway near Interstate 95. In her 21/2 years on the job, Britny Smith has heard just about everything.
But she is mindful of the very real nature of the crisis, emergency or tragedy faced by that voice on the other end of the line.
“We hear this stuff every day, so to us it might not be the worst thing we’ve heard,” Smith said. “But if they’re calling us, you have to think about the fact that this is the worst thing that is happening at the moment and try to make that a better situation.”
Tucked away in this second floor-room of the Public Safety Complex for 12 hours at a time, Smith’s job is often a thankless one. But her ability to strike the right balance of compassion and professionalism to calm the caller while expediting emergency response has not gone unnoticed.
Smith was selected earlier this month as the Georgia Communications Officer of the Year. The honor was announced March 7 in Columbus at the 2018 Georgia Emergency Communications Conference, held jointly by the Georgia Association of Public Safety Communications Officials and the National Emergency Number Association.
The 23-year-old Brunswick native was nominated for the award by Glynn-Brunswick 911 Director Steve Usher. In addition to serving as a dispatcher and call-taker, Smith also is a trainer, instructor and assistant supervisor.
“Britny is really a go-getter,” Usher said. “She is not afraid to tackle any challenge we put in front of her and it is an honor to have her on our team.”
Glynn-Brunswick 911 Supervisor Cara Richardson enthusiastically endorsed Usher’s nomination of Smith.
“For her young age, she is one of the best, for sure,” Richardson said. “She’s extremely motivated and very smart.”
For Usher, Smith exemplifies the level of dedication and efficiency displayed by the department’s entire staff. Usher would put this group up against any in the state.
“Britny is just one example,” Usher said. “Anybody here could get that award.”
The Brunswick-Glynn 911 Center is comprised of 30 full-time dispatcher/call-takers and three administrators, as well as some part-timers. It operates in 12-hour shifts, with six to seven folks fielding 911 calls at all times. The call-takers receive the emergency calls, while simultaneously disseminating the nature of the emergencies to dispatchers. The dispatcher relays the information to the related responding agency, either the Brunswick or Glynn police departments, or the city and county fire departments, Usher said.
“They work long hours with little recognition,” Usher said Tuesday. “The firefighters, the police, the paramedics are the ones who respond. But without this, none of that happens.”
Added Richardson: “These are the first, first-responders. It takes a special breed. A lot of people do not know what we do.”
It is tough work, but these people knew that when they took the job. Richardson has worked in emergency communications for some 20 years, beginning in the Air Force as a desk sergeant for the military branch’s police force. She has been with Glynn-Brunswick 911 for nearly three years. But this is still a relatively small community, and many of the dispatchers and call-takers are local.
“You have to be able to take a phone call from a neighbor, from someone you went to church with or to school with,” she said. “And they have to remove themselves from that personal connection, just to de-escalate the situation and get the information to first responders in a timely manner.”
Smith has experienced that personal connection. An acquaintance from childhood through high school turned out to be the victim in a murder-suicide she call handled. Another call involving the death of a baby in a residential fire haunts her still.
“I have a niece and a godson — I could not imagine going through things like that,” she said. “Even though we’re not at the scene doing those things ... the screams, there’s not any way to get that our of your head.”
But Smith and her co-workers still have a job to do, no matter the trauma. So they keep their wits about them. They try to calm the caller while gaining as much information as possible for the first responders who are en route.
“That for me is the hardest part, because you can’t tell someone not to feel that shock and grief,” she said. “But by the time first responders get there, hopefully, we’ve had a chance to talk to them and try to calm them down. Not that they’re over it, but the initial (shock) is lessened.”
When she got the job offer from Glynn-Brunswick 911, Smith was working as a role player for training scenarios at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center and part-time at a day care facility. During the interview, Smith learned the job involved working long hours and holidays — sitting in a dimly lit room away from her husband and Jack Russell terriers Rowdy and Piper — waiting for bad news. She has no regrets.
“I love it because I’m getting to help people,” Smith said, smiling. “Some days are just like any other job, and then other days we have really tragic things happen. It’s a common quote in our field, but it’s true: I want to be the best thing to happen to someone on their worst day.”