The emergency call came in on a cellular phone, which meant the computer couldn't provide Fairfax County call-taker Lori Lewis with an address. And the caller, a 33-year-old Woodbridge woman, was fading rapidly. She said she was in her car, on Burke Lake Road near Braddock Road in the Kings Park area.
"I'm 33," she said in response to one of Lewis's questions Tuesday morning, "and I don't feel well, not at all." Then she dropped the phone and just moaned. Then silence.
Lewis typed in what little information she had gotten from the woman and sent it to dispatcher Susan Malone, who called out a fire engine, a medical crew and an ambulance. Lewis listened through the open phone line, occasionally calling out, "Hello?" and waiting for help to arrive. And waiting. And hearing nothing.
The rescue crews arrived at the location, a commercial parking lot, and on Capt. Gary Winemiller's orders split up. The engine and ambulance began searching frantically for a car that met the description the woman had given--a gold Nissan Altima. Still nothing.
"There began to be a sense of panic," Lewis said yesterday at a news conference where she and Malone received plaudits from their superiors.
Eventually, rescue workers found the woman, whose name was not released by police, and rushed her to Inova Fairfax Hospital, where she was listed in good condition last night.
But her rescue came after many anxious moments in the dispatch office. Lewis and her supervisors had begun listening to the tape of the call, combing it for any audible clues to the woman's location. "I was worried I had heard this woman's last words," Lewis said.
Then Malone had an idea. She knew Lewis still had an open line to the caller, and she knew from her experience as a dispatcher in Winchester that sometimes cellular phone callers don't know where they are. She told the rescue crews to start sounding their air horns and sirens.
Faintly, Lewis heard something. "Wait a minute, I heard it," she yelled to Malone. "It's getting closer."
Malone told the crews to keep going. Just as the noises started to fade, she heard Lt. Ed Dodson lean into the Altima and say to the barely conscious woman, "Well, we had a heck of a time tracking you down. Good morning!"
Fire and rescue officials did not specify the woman's medical problem, but Winemiller said, "If we had not located her, she certainly would have had serious medical complications."
Although cellular phones have helped countless motorists and others in need to contact emergency dispatchers quickly, police said yesterday that the technology has not quite reached the level available to land-line callers. Computers can register a cellular phone's number, but they cannot specify the location of the call, as they can with conventional phones.
"It's a national problem," said Michael B. Fischel, director of the Fairfax communications center. "Realistically, locational technology is several years off."
The Woodbridge woman's call at 8:25 a.m. Tuesday was dispatched quickly, but it required 14 minutes to find her. She had actually pulled into a McDonald's parking lot on Burke Lake Road, Winemiller said.
Officials were quick to congratulate the two operators. "They kept their cool. They were very helpful to us," Winemiller said.