The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

May 14, 2013

Police reprise ‘academy’ for city residents

JOHNSTOWN — Since improved communications with the public represents a major goal of Johnstown’s Citizens Police Academy, Tuesday’s opening evening featured a crash course in emergency dispatching.

Robyn Melnyk, Cambria County 911 coordinator and deputy director for emergency services, gave the lively presentation for about 20 people attending the academy in Johnstown police training rooms in the Public Safety Building.

The city previously offered the academy from 1995 to 1997, but it was discontinued due to lack of participation. A series of high-profile incidents has renewed interest.

The academy is valuable not only to police, but to all emergency services, Melnyk said.

“Any time we get a group of people and tell them how to call 911, that makes our job easier,” Melnyk said, adding that the average person calls the emergency line only once or twice in a lifetime.

“It’s usually a bad day,” she said.

Callers under stress can’t come up with important details, such as the address of the emergency, she said. They also get frustrated at the script of standard questions coming from the dispatcher on the other end of the phone.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, ‘Just get somebody here to help me,’ ” Melnyk said.

But the questions are important and are carefully worded to help the caller provide information that will help responders, she said. More importantly, callers should know that while one dispatcher is taking the information, another is already sending police, ambulance or firefighters to the scene.

In the case of someone with chest pains, for instance, Melnyk said the dispatchers’ protocol includes instructions to give the patient aspirin, check for an airway obstruction, start chest compressions or other lifesaving action – all based on information about the patient’s condition provided by the caller.

The growing use of cellphones is challenging the dispatch center, because the system cannot pinpoint the caller’s location as with a landline. Nationally, about 65 percent of 911 calls come from cellphones. Last year, Cambria County logged 55 percent from mobile devices.

Melnyk previewed the next generation of dispatching, in which those reporting emergencies will exchange text messages with dispatchers and send photos of such things as suspects, wounds, getaway vehicles and crash scenes.

It has come a long way from the original 911 center, established in 1992. In those days, dispatchers logged card calls by hand and stamped each in a time clock.

“Technology is a big part of what we do in the dispatch center,” Melnyk said. “We have to stay ahead of it.”

Academy student Ron Esposito of Moxham said the presentation was an eye-opener.

“It’s truly amazing,” Esposito said.

“It’s like air traffic controllers. If it weren’t for them, people would die, and die fast.”

Tuesday’s session opened with an overview of the academy and police department operations by Capt. Andrew Frear. The idea is to help the participants learn how police work and understand the limitations.

“Very few crimes are solved without interaction of the public,” Frear said.

City Manager Kristen Denne thanked participants for their interest.

“You leave here with an understanding that this is a process,” she said. “You leave here being ambassadors for the police department.”

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