Three numbers you hope to never need: 911. However, at that moment when you do, you’re not likely thinking about where that call is being answered or by whom.
There is a Bexar Metro Emergency Communication Center in far north San Antonio, though the organization doesn’t like to advertise the exact location for safety purposes. Inside what looks similar to a NASA mission control center (think a huge, dark room with massive TV screens, dozens of computer monitors and people wearing headsets), there are call-takers for the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office and the San Antonio Police Department.
“People’s lives initially depend on what we do here,” said Jennifer Rodriguez, who has been an SAPD communications call taker for 5 years.
When someone calls or texts 911, a call taker, like Jennifer, answers and immediately asks, ‘do you need police, fire, or EMS?’
When there’s a fire
If there is a fire or someone needs an ambulance, Jennifer said, “we don’t ask any questions first. We get fire on the line immediately.”
The call is transferred to dispatchers with the San Antonio Fire Department, who are located in the same room. SAPD call takers stay on the line to see if a police officer is needed.
When an officer does need to respond, call takers get as much information as they can. The questions they ask are often similar, but what’s on the other end of each call can be wildly different. And some of those calls they never forget.
“This wife called, and her husband had just shot himself in the head,” Jennifer said.
When the call first came in, the man had not yet pulled the trigger.
“She was calling for help for mental health. And while she was on the phone, you heard the gun go off. You heard her scream,” Jennifer said. “To hear what was going on in her screams; those things never come out of your head.”
“You can’t help but feel the pain that the person who’s calling is going through,” she added.
When the call moves to a dispatcher
A call taker’s job is to put the information a caller gives them into what’s called a key card and then pass that digital card onto a San Antonio Police Dispatcher, also located inside the same room within the Emergency Communication Center.
“The dispatcher will read the key card and prioritize it, whether it be a code 1, code 2, code 3 response,” said Christen Rodriguez, SAPD Communications Supervisor, and dispatcher.
“It could be a robbery in progress, a shooting in progress, a rape in progress,” she said. “Those types of calls, of course, they’re code 3 and they’re our number one priority to get officers out there.”
Dispatchers work with emergency calls that are divided according to SAPD substations.
They dispatch officers that work out of those substations based on where an emergency is located.
During an interview with KSAT, Christen had to break away to respond to a call for a shooting.
A teen boy had shot himself in the hand. The caller said it was on purpose.
“You know, do I send two officers? Do I send three officers?” Christen said. “The hardest part is knowing that you’re in charge of all these lives and, you know, that one time you don’t send cover could cost- or potentially cost- you know, an officer’s life.”
There are two Emergency Communication Centers in San Antonio, one on the Northside and one on the Southside. Both are operated by Bexar Metro, however, despite the name, it is not a division of Bexar County.
It’s the local 911 district. Such districts exist across the state.
Bexar Metro serves Bexar, Guadalupe, and Comal counties.
“Our primary job is to provide the resources necessary for the 911 system to work from the time a caller dials 911 to the time a call taker receives the call,” said Zelenia Alvarez, Bexar Metro Director of Engagement and Education.
Bexar Metro provides the technology and the equipment. The 40 cities within the Bexar Metro 911 District provide the call takers, dispatchers, and first responders.
When you pay your phone bill
Your tax dollars pay for the work of your local police and fire departments, but a fee on your phone bill pays for the 911 technology.
“All wireless numbers have a fifty-cent fee now,” said Zelenia. “That is collected by the state comptroller and then divided out accordingly.”
There’s also a fifty-cent fee applied to residential landlines and VOIP lines (that’s when you use an internet connection to make calls).
For business lines, the fee is one dollar per month.
Bexar Metro works with an annual budget of $18 million.
That provides the 911 technology for the 23 Emergency Communication Centers across Bexar, Guadalupe, and Comal counties.
The two centers in San Antonio serve as each other’s backup.
“They’re redundant to each other. So if one facility goes down, we’ve got the other is a backup,” said Belinda Esquivel, SAPD Police Communications Manage. “If something catastrophic were to happen and both facilities were down, as far as our phones or CAD systems, then we partner with Austin PD. And so they would take our overflow, they take our 911 calls.”
For call taker Jennifer, those calls have become her calling- no matter the chaos on the other end.
“I’ve actually taken up knitting or crocheting and on my break or on my lunch, I’ll take a walk outside,” she said. “And I, I know this is religious talk, but I talk to God or I knit or I crochet. And you find ways to cope. But I wouldn’t see myself doing anything else. I really wouldn’t.”