Twenty-four 911 dispatchers for St. Thomas, St. John and Water Island received certifications Monday afternoon in a ceremony at Government House, with friends, family and government officials looking on.
Twelve experienced dispatchers and twelve new dispatchers trained rigorously for the positions with the new system for 14 weeks, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Dispatcher Monique George said that sometimes her job is seen as clerical, but it is much more demanding than that.
"We get little credit and much blame," George said to the graduates. "My job is to get you the help that you need when you need it. If people ask you what you do, tell them, ‘I save lives.’"
The training included a basic but, by all accounts, rigorous emergency medical technician first-responder course, where the dispatchers learned CPR and first aid so they could talk callers through an emergency and keep them calm until appropriate emergency personnel respond on site.
The dispatchers will use new equipment with capabilities that allow them to communicate directly with the on-site responders.
"The hardest part was becoming a first responder," Dispatcher Devin Dyer said. "We had test after test, and you had to have an 80 average or above to pass."
Dyer said that she spent at least four hours studying every night.
The new infrastructure encompasses everything from antennas to telephony to advanced communications equipment capable of integrating seamlessly with all V.I. first responders’ radios.
The new system and training cost $17 million, with $700,000 coming from the federal government. The system allows callers to reach a "one-stop-shop" dispatcher who will stay with them until the completion of a call and responders reach the emergency site.
"When we began, we didn’t know where the money would come from," Gov. John deJongh Jr. said.
The idea came from the police department. In hiring the dispatchers, calmness and fortitude were a character requisite, the governor said.
"No matter how good the police or fire or EMS are, they are only as good as all of you who have graduated today," the governor said. "You are the backbone for the police, for health and for fire."
While the dispatchers received their certificates today from the governor and V.I.. Territorial Emergency Management Agency Director Mark Walters, they still have a national exam to take.
"Hopefully we can take it soon while everything is still fresh in our minds," Dyer said.
EMS Training Officer Avon Chesterfield gained a reputation for toughness from the graduates, who cheered him as he accepted a plaque for his work.
Chesterfield taught the dispatchers the national standard medical first-responder course, an 84-hour class where the students learned everything form controlling bleeding to rescue breathing to splinting. Understanding these skills allows the dispatchers to anticipate the kind of situation where they are sending emergency-response personnel.
The system will be up and running within a few weeks, according to Walters.