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Emergency Radio Button Helps Save Pennsylvania Ambulance Crew

The "hot button" on the county's new radio system worked for a ambulance crew in danger.

Police responded within 30 seconds of dispatchers being alerted to a hostage situation at a Waynesboro home, according to Franklin County Emergency Services Director David Donohue.

County commissioners on Tuesday recognized telecommunicators Larry Booze and Jim Birgfeld, both of Metal Township, for their roles in handling the May 15 incident.

An ambulance crew responded to a call for seizures around 7:20 a.m., according to Donohue.

"It seemed to be a routine call," Booze said.

The emergency medical technicians however found themselves in a situation where they might be harmed, Donohue said. One of them pushed the red button on his radio.

The action turns on an open microphone for 10 seconds so dispatchers can hear what's going on in the background and send help to the distressed first responders. The incident on May 15 was the first time the system had been used correctly, Donohue said.

Birgfeld, who was handling ambulance calls, saw the activation of the mike on his screen and asked the crew to confirm, and one of the crew repeatedly confirmed it.

Dispatchers heard a confrontation, Donohue said.

"We can hear conversations or a scuffle," Booze said. "There was yelling and a lot going on. It took a few moments to figure out what was going on. I think they (the EMTs) had their hands full."

"We sent all the help we could send them," Birgfeld said.

Police arrived within three minutes, Donohue said. No one was injured during the incident.

The county phased in the "hot button" microphones starting in January 2011 with an upgrade of the county's 911 system, according to Donohue. Within four months all agencies were equipped with them.

Typically the red button is pushed accidentally, and the responder denies confirmation, Birgfeld said. The button is located next to the volume knob on many radios and can be triggered easily, according to Donohue.

The emergency open mike system is part of an improved emergency communications system that cost more than $7 million and took nearly eight years to complete. A digital trunking system has replaced an analog system. More broadcast towers have nearly eliminated "dead zones" where emergency radio reception and transmission was poor.

It's important to have both the technology and trained people to react appropriately to it, Commissioner Robert Thomas said.

Commissioners presented letters of recognition to Booze, a dispatcher for three years, and Birgfeld, a dispatcher for two years. Both have years of experience in fire fighting.

According to the letters, "Your actions are responsible for bringing this incident to a successful and safe conclusion, ensuring the safety of the ambulance crew and patient, and (demonstrate) duty, pride and professionalism."

"We happened to be the two sitting at the console," Booze said. "It could have been anybody sitting there. We have a lot of good people. We happened to be the right people at the right time."

"The system worked like it should have," Birgfeld said.



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