Sitting in front of a row of computer monitors, listening to rapid-fire information on a headset and constantly toggling keys with a swift volley on her keyboard, Georgia Garrett looks as if she could be playing a complex video game.
Although the numbers on her screen do create a virtual picture of her world, what they represent is extremely real. Garrett, a dispatcher for the Prince William County Police Department, monitors and organizes a fleet of officers out on the street, making sense of a constant stream of codes, unit numbers and crimes, as they happen.
"It can be a little stressful," Garrett said on a recent night, between dispatching a police unit to investigate a business alarm and speaking with another officer investigating a car crash. "But you get used to it."
The operations center at the county's Communications Center, behind the McCoart Administration Building, is a war room, the heart of all radio traffic that goes over Prince William's emergency airwaves as well as the recipient of every 911 call. The operators and dispatchers, all civilians, are responsible for handling an array of emergency calls, from car crashes to homicides, missing children to power outages.
"We have to know a little bit about everything," said Pam Mollenauer, the center's training coordinator, speaking to members of the Prince William County Citizens Police Academy last week. "In one night we'll get calls about runaways and animal control issues among any emergency concerns that come up. No two calls are alike."
Allowing academy members to sit in on 911 calls and on dispatches Wednesday night, Mollenauer explained that the variety of calls makes the job far more complex than the public might realize. Operators are equipped with a set of flash cards that help them deal with specific emergencies, but each call has its own unique characteristics.
In one instance Wednesday night, the caller seemed to be impaired by either drugs or alcohol, and he had placed his emergency call because his brother apparently stopped breathing. After more than a minute on the line, the man said that his brother had HIV and was in severe pain and that he was breathing intermittently. Unable to answer several questions, the man waited on the line until emergency vehicles arrived.
"We're here to help you deal with the situation and calm you down until help arrives," Mollenauer said, adding that 911 operators actually save only about one of every 1,000 lives that are in danger. "We try to help you keep the situation under control so that when help arrives, they can save lives."
Two weeks ago, in the academy's eighth week, class members learned about the property crimes unit, which deals with most crimes that don't involve violence. County Police Sgt. Tony Spencer spoke about the methods the department uses to solve larcenies, burglaries and scams.
Spencer said about 65 percent to 75 percent of all property crimes in the county end up "cleared" by the department, which means that either they result in an arrest or the officers are certain they have found the criminal even if prosecution isn't an option.
Detective Dave Smith, who works in the unit, said there are several reasons it might be difficult to find a criminal--either there are too many suspects, a lack of leads or a basic lack of information. But he said criminals often are responsible for getting themselves caught.
"The majority of crimes are solved by luck [on the police's part] and by stupidity on the criminal's part," Smith said.
Spencer also discussed interview tactics, explaining that much of a detective's time is spent talking to suspects or victims and trying to extract information. He outlined several indicators that a suspect is being deceptive--including demeanor, body language and tone of voice--and said the most important part of his job is being able to persuade people to talk to him.
Staff writer Josh White is attending the Citizens Police Academy. His reports will appear every other week.