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Who Ya Gonna Call?
Campus Adopts Universal 911 System for Police,
Fire Emergencies

By Carla Garnett

On the Front Page...

Employees who work on NIH's Bethesda campus should now call 911 for police, fire and emergency services, according to O.W. Sweat, director of NIH's Division of Public Safety, Office of Research Services. Previously, the campus had its own emergency numbers for such crises, but DPS seeks to reduce confusion that employees, contractors and visitors to the campus may have. As always, NIH police, fire fighters and other emergency staff will respond to on-campus calls. A year-long overlap between the old 115 and 116 systems and the new 911 system will allow everyone to get accustomed to the universal system. Those employees working in off-campus buildings will still need to press "9" before calling 911.

NIH Police Officer Tart Dickerson receives an emergency call.

Caroline Northrop


"Universal 911 will enable the police department and the fire department to serve the NIH community better," says Capt. Will Liston of DPS. "We should see quicker response times, smoother operations and fewer breakdowns in communication. Employees and visitors will see an improvement with this system."

The switchover to 911 is the culmination of a long process that required that NIH be certified according to national emergency standards and will include a complete overhaul of the agency's communications system within DPS. The universal 911 system has already been tested both on and off campus. It became fully operational on Aug. 17. All those who use NIH telephones are urged to call 911 only for emergency situations. To contact the Police Branch for nonemergency assistance, call 496-5685; the Fire Department can be reached at 496-2372 during nonemergencies.

NIH Police Capt. Will Liston demonstrates the campus's new universal 911 system, which was officially activated just a week ago. Learning the ropes is new civilian emergency dispatcher Ron Olmsted.

The new universal system requires at least two operators to staff the unit at all times. Already, DPS has hired six new civilian dispatchers to run what is called its "Emergency Communication Center." Among other upgrades to the system, the required new equipment will allow dispatchers to know immediately where calls originate. They also will be able to accept calls more easily from people using telephone devices for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.

Eventually, the new system will also give dispatchers a complete onscreen history of the building or site of the emergency, explains Liston. "That's going to be particularly important in hazardous material situations," he says. "As soon as the call comes in, we'll know exactly what we're dealing with, whether there are special chemicals in the area or other things emergency personnel need to be aware of immediately."

New Emergency System Passes Real-Life Test

Earlier this month, the new universal emergency call system was tested -- for real.

On Wednesday, Aug. 5 -- soon after the system's installation, but weeks before formal testing was to begin -- NIH Dispatcher Archie Tolbert received a 911 emergency call from an employee reporting the potential suicide of her father. She was calling from NIH, she said, but her father was located in Kensington. Tolbert immediately transferred the call to Montgomery County's 911 emergency system, where they were able to dispatch officers to the father's residence before tragedy could strike.

Fire fighter Archie Tolbert, surrounded by computer and video monitors, staffs the 911 reception desk.

"This type of call supports our rationale for establishing 911 on the NIH campus," said O.W. Sweat, director of the Division of Public Safety. "When people are under stress and excited, they will dial 911 and tend to forget other unusual emergency numbers such as our old 115 (police) and 116 (fire) emergency numbers. This employee was at work here on the campus and mistakenly called 911. However since we had the system up and running (although unannounced) we received the call... [The new system gives us] the ability to monitor the conversations and the tape reveals that both our communications dispatcher and the county dispatcher performed exceptionally. Needless to say, the system obviously saved a life in this instance. That makes all the work worthwhile."

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