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By BOB JACKSON



Published: Sun, September 22, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



By BOB JACKSON

VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER

YOUNGSTOWN -- It's 8 o'clock on a muggy Wednesday morning in downtown Youngstown.

Three men and a woman sit in a cramped, windowless room, waiting for someone to call and tell them what's going on outside.

A radio tuned to a classic rock station plays in the background, volume turned down low. The Eagles are singing "Take It Easy."

The four people know the calls will come. They come every day, and the news is rarely good.

A car accident. A drug overdose. A prowler. A heart attack. A lost dog. A found dog. A traveler who's lost his way. Sometimes a woman screaming incoherently.

"We get calls about everything," said Dave Catauro. "We pretty much hear it all around here."

That's a typical day at the Mahoning County 911 dispatching center, on the third floor of the county administration building on West Boardman Street.

Catauro is working the day shift with dispatchers Mike Miller, Kimberly Maytas and Ed Chismar, whom they affectionately call "Chizzy."

Besides taking emergency telephone calls from the public, the center handles dispatching duties for 13 police and fire departments.

Today, that's Chismar's assignment. He sits at the radio listening for calls from officers in the field and relaying information back to them.

The morning starts out slowly, giving the staffers time to explain to a visitor how the system works.

Standard procedures

When a phone call comes in, a video monitor immediately displays the name, address and telephone number where the call originates.

It also shows which police and fire agency have jurisdiction there, so dispatchers know right away whom to send if there's an emergency.

If they answer and the caller hangs up, the dispatcher immediately calls back, just to make sure everything's OK. Usually, it's just a misdial or kids playing a prank, Maytas said.

Around 9 a.m. the phones start to get busy. For about a half-hour the calls come nonstop, causing the operators to scramble to keep up. Occasionally, Chismar has to turn away from the police radio to answer a telephone because the others are busy.

Still, he keeps his ear tuned to the police radio, just in case someone radios in.

Then, just as suddenly as the calls started, they stop.

There's about a two-minute lull in the action. Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "Takin' Care of Business" comes on the radio.

"Sometimes, this room just jams. Sometimes, nothing happens," Catauro said. "You never know what to expect. Every shift is different."

The day shift, especially in the summer, is usually busiest with medical calls. Someone's had a heart attack and needs an ambulance. Someone calls in the morning to report that a loved one died in his or her sleep during the night.

When that happens, dispatchers have to notify the county coroner's office. "We get a lot of those," Chismar said.

Variety of calls

"We get a wide range of calls," Maytas said. "One minute you could get a call from someone reporting a death. The next one could be from somebody whose mailbox just got smashed, and that's the end of the world for them."

Dispatchers on the afternoon and night shifts are more likely to get calls reporting thefts, burglaries or an assault.

And when there's a full moon, forget about it. Every shift will be bombarded with calls of every nature.

"Sounds crazy," Catauro said. "But it's true."

As he's speaking, a voice comes across the police radio and Chizzy leans in close to listen. Something about a license plate number. He immediately picks up a pencil, jots down the number, then keys his microphone to respond.

"Copy," is all he says. That lets the officer know he heard him and is taking care of his request.

The call came from a deputy sheriff riding a motorcycle for traffic enforcement.

"They're hard to hear when they're on the bikes," Chismar said while typing the license plate information into the police information terminal. Moments later, he tears a page off the printer and radios the information to the deputy.

No outstanding warrants and no prior citations for the driver in question.

The phones start ringing again.

Stevie Nicks' "Edge of Seventeen" plays on the radio.

Emergency calls aren't all they handle here. Lots of people call on the nonemergency line with all sorts of questions, like telephone numbers for county agencies or directions to county offices.

"A lot of people don't know how to get to the courthouse," Miller said. "So they call 911."

'Something crazy'

And there are the regular callers -- like the woman who calls and screams into the phone. "If you try to talk to her, she'll hang up and then call back," Catauro said.

"When you pick up the phone, you don't know if it's going to be someone screaming at you, laughing at you or asking you something crazy," Chismar added.

Besides knowing how to deal with the public and police, it helps if a 911 dispatcher knows a little about local geography and landmarks, Catauro said.

"If we get a call from a deputy screaming for help, we have to know where they are so we can get help to them right away," he said.

Likewise, if a lost motorist calls looking for directions, dispatchers must be able to provide reliable guidance.

Just before 10 am., a woman calls on the nonemergency line. She's from Coitsville Township and is reporting that her credit card was charged for a stay at a local motel.

Problem is, she was never there. She was out of the country at the time, visiting her husband who's with the military stationed in Afghanistan. She wants to talk to a policeman. Miller says he'll have one call her.

The words are barely out of his mouth and Chismar's on the radio, summoning a Coitsville Township officer.

"That's called having a split ear," Catauro said. Besides paying attention to their own task, dispatchers must also be tuned in to what the others are doing, ready to help whenever needed.

'Slow morning'

Around 10:30 a.m., someone calls to ask whether the lights are on at the WASN radio tower. Dispatchers send a police officer to check. The cop calls back minutes later. No, the lights aren't on, but the grass needs to be cut.

It's been a slow morning.

"Makes the time go slow," Catauro said. "But all it takes is one call to change everything."

A deputy calls to report her cruiser is broken down on the East Side. A tow truck is sent.

The Mahoning Valley Drug Task Force radios in and says they've picked up a man on an arrest warrant and are taking him to the county jail.

Maytas punches the suspect's name into the computer and hits the "print" button. A rap sheet four feet long rolls off the printer. He has two outstanding warrants for endangering children.

At 10:49 a.m., a Canfield Township policeman radios in. He's investigating a security alarm drop at a residence in a housing development. The door is open, but no one's home. He's going inside to investigate.

The dispatchers all sit silently, waiting to hear back from him. They don't want to call him on the radio and give away his position if there is an armed intruder inside the house. They'll send backup if they don't hear from him soon.

Finally, the silence is broken.

"All clear," the officer says. Just an accidental alarm. The homeowner is on her way.

"Copy," Chismar says.

At 11:15 a.m. the deputy calls to say her cruiser's been towed to the county garage.

Shortly after noon, someone calls to report a traffic accident in Goshen Township. A car collided with a tractor. Then another caller reports the same thing. Then another. Seven people call about it.

"The police are on the way," Maytas tells the last one.

While that's going on, Catauro takes a call about a lost dog.

On the radio it's Jimi Hendrix, "Voodoo Chile."

The dispatchers talk about what they want for lunch, where they'll get it and who'll go pick it up. Maytas is the designated lunch runner today.

Just as she's getting ready to leave, two phones ring at the same time. Maytas picks up one. It's someone reporting a break-in at a church in Berlin Center. Some items have been stolen.

Frantic caller

Catauro picks up the other call. Creases immediately form across his forehead as he strains to listen.

It's a young boy on the other end of the line. His sister has locked herself in the bathroom with four bottles of pills and is threatening to kill herself.

The boy had run to a neighbor's house to make the call. He is frantic, which makes it tough to get good details from him. He's not sure how old the girl is.

Catauro calms him enough to get their address in Smith Township and Chismar immediately radios the township police department. Catauro lets the boy know that help is coming.

He is quiet as he hangs up the phone.

"I hope they get there in time," he says softly.

Once they dispatch the police or fire departments to the scene, 911 operators don't always get to find out how a situation is resolved.

"I don't know if that's good or bad," Catauro said. "It's good, I guess."

There's been a crush of phone calls over the past few minutes, but now there's another lull.

Miller stands up to stretch. Chizzy leans back in his chair and stretches. Eddie Money sings "Baby Hold On."

Maytas leaves to pick up lunch. Catauro steps out of the room to go down the hall for a moment. He's barely out the door when the phones start ringing again.

Miller grabs the first call. Chismar, already on the radio with a policeman, takes the second. Catauro bursts back into the room just in time to pick up the third.

"It always happens that way," he said after hanging up. "Every time. As soon as someone walks out of the room, the phones start going crazy."

Follow-up

Within minutes, Maytas is back, and all positions are manned again. The phones have stopped.

"It figures," Chismar said.

"Dreamboat Annie" by Heart plays in the background. The rest of the afternoon offers a couple more crushes and lulls.

No one from Smith Township has radioed in to say what happened to the little girl in the bathroom, and Catauro can't get her and her brother out of his mind. Just before quitting time, he calls the township police to find out.

She'd swallowed pills. Lots of them. She was rushed to a local hospital where her stomach was pumped. She survived.

"She'll need counseling for sure," Catauro said, leaning back in his chair. "But that's better than her being dead."

Catauro, Miller, Maytas and Chismar wrap up their shift and give way to the afternoon crew. Today went OK. They'll be back tomorrow.

bjackson@vindy.com




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