Wood marks 30 years of dispatching

Published 10:05 am Friday, November 27, 2015

When Gilbert Wood accepted his position as a part-time dispatcher in August 1985, he told his supervisor that he was going to stay in the position for a very short time.

It only took a few seconds after the 1964 University of Virginia graduate hung up from answering his first 911 call to realize that he wasn’t going anywhere.

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The 74-year-old baritone-voiced man has marked his 30th year with the Farmville Emergency Communications Center and has seen

unprecedented growth and changes during his tenure.

The once one-room small office with a bank of telephones manned by one person has culminated to a state-of-the-art center that employs 20 full-time and part-time dispatchers.

“They kept asking me to do it, basically,” Wood said of his being hired. “I thought it was an interesting job … I finally just said yes.”

Wood, who was born in Farmville in 1941, would become a full-time dispatcher in 1987, chief dispatcher in 1990, the town’s 911 coordinator in 2010 and director of the center in 2011.

In the mid-1980s when Wood started his career, dispatchers were housed on Main Street in the former town office. Then, they dispatched town police, fire and rescue, in addition to Longwood and Hampden-Sydney College police officers, Cumberland County deputies and Virginia State Police Troopers.

Currently, the center handles all 911 calls in Farmville and Prince Edward and dispatches Farmville police and Farmville and Prince Edward’s rescue squads and fire departments.

Back then, citizens dialed a seven-digit number to reach the fire department or rescue squads, he said.

The room that the sole dispatcher was stationed in was about as small as his office which lies separately in the large communications center on the second floor of the town hall.

“It got to be pretty hectic,” Wood said of the lone dispatcher handling calls of yesteryear.

After fire and water damage in 2003, the dispatch office moved from Main Street to the town’s maintenance shop on Longwood Avenue, he said. From there, the office moved to its current location.

Wood’s favorite part of dispatching was the ability to help people in their time of need.

“We’ve heard gunshots on the telephone. You know, people die. Of course we also have really trivial calls like ‘What time do the movies start?’ …  It’s the constant input … It’s all different. No day here is ever the same,” he said.

In 2007, when Wood transitioned into management, he stopped actively dispatching — something that he misses.

“I had a good voice and people liked to hear me on the radio … It was really enjoyable,” he said.

Back in the old days, Wood said it was unbelievable to take eight rescue or fire calls in one day. Now, it’s almost the norm.

Wood has seen several major changes in the communications industry during his tenure. He’s witnessed a bank of six ordinary telephones purposed for emergency calls transform into a computer system that pinpoints the address, street, call history and exact location of a caller and residence or business.

“Those were not Enhanced 911. They were regular 911 telephones and when somebody called you didn’t have any information pop-up. You had nothing. Just their voice,” Wood said of the old system. 

Before 2005 when the dispatchers began to use CAD, or computer-aided dispatch, they’d document incident details by writing them down by hand on log sheets. Data is now entered directly into the computer.

The change in technology has helped tremendously with compiling data, said Wood. “We can retrieve them a lot better [and] faster,” he said of tracking calls and information.

The other big change he’s seen is the growth from three full-time dispatchers in the center’s staff to 15. “We normally have three or four dispatchers on duty [at once],” he said, referencing the one that handled all calls when he was hired.

Wood noted the aggressive approach that Town Manager Gerald Spates has taken in developing the center and its systems.

“It’s a challenge and I enjoy the challenge,” Wood said. “I do have fun with it. It’s not as much fun as answering the telephone … or being on the radio, because I really did enjoy that.”