By Jill Penley
Perhaps they are the first contact and often they are the first on the scene when trouble comes. Whether it’s a car accident, a fire, or a health emergency, when trouble arrives, highly skilled and trained local heroes come to the rescue. In times past, one would dial “0” from a landline telephone and wait for “operator” assistance. Under that now antiquated system, the caller would have to provide name and address so the telephone operator could notify the local police, fire or ambulance dispatcher. Now, when an emergency arises all one must do is call 911 where a trained dispatcher can immediately summon help.
“The county board of commissioners adopted a resolution in 1992 to start a 911 center,” explained Jerry Jordan, Director of Johnson County 911, “and a board of directors was appointed.”
Groundbreaking for the building occurred in August 1995, with completion in June 1996. The current 911 assistant director, Kevin Colson, took the first 911 call in the spring of 1998.
According to Jordan, the local 911 dispatchers answer about 4,000 calls each month. He explains actual 911 calls average 650 per month with the remainder being calls made to the center’s administrative lines, which are 423-727-7669 and 423-727-7761, option 3. “Some of our 911 calls aren’t true emergency calls, and some of our Admin calls should be a true 911 call,” said Jordan, who said it is imperative to utilize the 911 system for emergencies only.
Local dispatchers said people call to get directions, weather and accident reports or, frequently, just to ask what the non-emergency police number is. In addition to Jordan and Colson, there are eight full-time 911 employees and five part-time employees. “They are very professional,” said Jordan, “and continue to provide an excellent service to local residents when a true emergency occurs, and immediate help is needed.”
The majority of funding for Johnson County 911, which is governed by a board of directors, comes from the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board, or TECB fund allocation, which 55 percent of that amount is from the 911 fee charged on landline and cell phone bills @ $1.17 per phone. The other 45 percent comes from the TECB, and they allocate these funds. Additionally, Johnson County provides 14 percent of the funding, and the Town of Mountain City provides 11 percent of Johnson County 911 services.One of the agencies frequently dispatched by 911 is the local rescue squad. Founded over 50 years ago and first chartered in 1967 by a group of 13 men, the Johnson County Rescue and EMS (Emergency Medical Services) still provides a vital service to the area.
“This job evolves day by day,” said Brad Gentry, a 13-year veteran paramedic with the squad and shift supervisor. “There are constant changes in technology, equipment, treatment, technique, and skills.”
Another veteran paramedic and administrative supervisor, Roger Broch, explains the drive to help others is the key to being successful in emergency situations. “It is so fulfilling when we think back at some of the lives we’ve been able to save,” said Broch. “You just go out there and do your job – the job you’ve been trained to do.”
Broch says he has worked overdoses, heart attacks, car wrecks, and gunshot wounds, but the call that stands out most to him involved an accidental overdose of a child just over a year old, who ingested several opioids obviously thinking it was candy. “That really bothered me,” he said. “We’re trained to deal with all kinds of situations, but we’re still human.”
“We currently have 27 employees,” said Jeff Young, Johnson County Rescue Squad and EMS Director, “with an average tenure of a little over eight years and some of which have been here more than 20 years.” According to Young, the department has five full-time administrators, eight full-time employees, and 14 part-time employees.
Prepare for the worst and hope for the best. That remains the motto of Jason Blevins, Johnson County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) Director, who relates Johnson County EMA can have between three and five call responses per month. According to Blevins, these calls vary from search operations to vehicle accidents with potentially hazardous material spills. The agency’s staff, which consists of Michael Sumner, Operations Officer, and Blevins, is tasked with the development and maintenance of the County Emergency Operations Plan, as well as the County Mitigation Plan.
“We assist in any major incident in the county from searches, storms, hazmat spills, large fires, or any other incident that requires extra assistance,” said Blevins, who advises any outside resources and agencies needed in a local emergency, including state and federal, are coordinated through Emergency Management. “The majority of our work is done before an incident,” said Blevins. “Emergency Management works with local agencies, businesses, and churches on training, drills, and assessments to help prepare for and mitigate situations before they arise.” The Operations Officer, who is also a reserve deputy, in partnership with the Sheriff’s Office and Johnson County Department of Education, is able to work with local schools to provide education about emergency preparedness, social media, and peer pressure. “We also assist with extra school resource officer presence in the schools when requested,” said Blevins.
Collaboration and cooperation are the keys to Johnson County’s Emergency Management Agencies. “It is crucial we work together,“ said Blevins. “With any rural area, no one group or department cannot be everywhere and specialize in everything, but together we can strive to get the job accomplished and hopefully save lives in the process.”