911 dispatch program celebrates 10 years and new simulation lab
Every year more than one million 911 calls are answered by public safety telecommunicators in Palm Beach County, and Palm Beach State College has been training these “heroes behind the headsets” for a decade.
The county’s leader in public safety education, Palm Beach State established the Public Safety Telecommunications Career Certificate Program in 2012 in response to Florida becoming one of the first states to require certification for 911 dispatchers. It is still the only state college program of its kind south of Brevard County.
“The College was very forward-thinking to provide a centralized location for the training of dispatchers,” said Dan Koenig, senior manager for 911 in Palm Beach County’s Public Safety Department and a former program instructor. “The program at Palm Beach State is great to have here. It professionalizes the industry.”
Now, thanks to training equipment purchased with funds from the CARES Act Rapid Credentialing Grant, the program can simulate a 911 dispatch operation—complete with a computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system—in its new lab in the Public Safety Training Center on the College’s Lake Worth campus.
“With SAVE Corporation’s E911 simulator system, we can provide a hands-on experience using a real-time CAD with real-time calls,” said Phil Berlingo, who has been the program’s coordinator and one of the instructors since its launch. “Students pinpoint locations and dispatch mock units as we bombard them with multiple calls of all types. We can even add background noises just to make it as realistic as a dispatch center.”
The 232-hour, state-approved program can be completed part time (evenings) in one semester, and graduates are eligible to take the state certification exam. In addition to classroom and lab instruction, students go on field trips to Palm Beach County’s Emergency Operations Center, the Trauma Hawk air ambulance base, South County Mental Health Center and St. Mary’s Trauma Center, and they spend time at some of the county’s 15 public safety answering points (PSAPs) to observe professional dispatchers in action.
The new lab equipment has been installed in time to celebrate National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, April 10-16, and the program’s 10th anniversary.
“This program would not have been possible without Phil Berlingo and our dedicated instructors,” said Barbara Cipriano, associate dean for Public Safety. “They know firsthand the demands facing these unseen first responders, and the students have benefited tremendously. Many of our graduates work in the county and have risen through the ranks.”
“I strongly believe in the program,” said Donna Ross, an instructor since 2013. Ross, who entered the field in 1987, is the assistant emergency communications manager for Northcom, the PSAP serving the police departments of Palm Beach Gardens, Jupiter, Juno Beach, Jupiter Inlet Colony, North Palm Beach and Tequesta. She has also hired program graduates.
“It is so crucial, not just for me but for all of the instructors, that our students understand how important stepping into these shoes will be for the person on the other end of the phone,” Ross said. “We go from delivering babies over the phone, to giving lifesaving instructions, to trying to talk down someone from going outside with a gun—all while remaining calm. This is not just a job, it’s a profession.”
Dana Zamarelli, a duty officer supervisor for Florida Highway Patrol, graduated from the program 10 years ago and now oversees a 911 telecommunications team that covers 11 counties.
“The program was fantastic,” Zamarelli said. “It covered so many things, and we had people from all sorts of different departments and agencies come in and talk about their careers. Everyone came in with so much knowledge and so much to talk about, it made me excited to keep furthering my career.
“I also recall the field trips. I had never been to a trauma center, for example, and didn’t know that we have two in the county with a cut-off line of who goes to the north or south one. It may seem trivial, but when I’m in the middle of a really big incident with multiple traumas, and maybe my CAD is down or maybe I don’t have the maps that I need, I already know in my head where these people are going.”
Berlingo, a retired NYPD officer, also works for the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, and is often reminded of the impact of the program when he’s patrolling.
“What’s rewarding to me is I can be out on the road for PBSO, and I’ll phone fire rescue for a call number, and when they answer the phone, they go right to ‘Mr. Berlingo, how’s everything going, how’s everything going at the College?’ And then I know it’s one of my former students, and that’s the rewarding part—that they’re actually working in the career field.”
The Public Safety Telecommunications program is offered three times a year, and the next class begins May 16. For more information, email PublicSafetyTelecommunications@palmbeachstate.edu or visit www.palmbeachstate.edu/career-pathways/Pathway-Public-Safety.