HOWLAND - The stillness at the Trumbull County 911 Center on a Tuesday afternoon wasn't what some people might expect inside an office that receives thousands of calls a year.
The heaviness of the call that came in moments earlier showed on the faces of the dispatchers: The mother of a Weathersfield toddler had just found her girl in the family's swimming pool. It wasn't looking good.
"You can feel it," said Ernie Cook, executive director of Trumbull County 911. "It's that one call that can change your whole day. ... It can be the call you never forget."
Trumbull 911 Dispatchers, from left, Lance Adkins of Cortland, Andy Smolko of Niles, Jeffrey Ford of Howland and Cathy Saul of McDonald, pose at the 911 center.
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple
The girl, 2, was rushed to St. Joseph Health Center, where she died.
Cook explained the one thing a 911 dispatcher can count on is never knowing what's on the other end of a call, or the ultimate outcome.
Most likely, the caller is looking for help during a domestic dispute, reporting a crash, fire or medical emergency, or requesting police to respond to a break-in, burglary or home invasion.
Few and far between, though, are the times when a dispatcher asks:
"911. What's your emergency?"
"Um. I just attempted to kill my mother and stepfather."
That's how a call to the Howland center began June 22; what followed was about 75 minutes of conversations between dispatchers and Thomas Starr, who is accused of killing his stepfather and wounding his mother at their home in Southington.
Starr, of West Farmington, initiated communication with dispatchers about 10:15 p.m. The conversations ended around 11:30 p.m. when officers, using dogs and search lights, found him near a wooded area.
Starr had more than 20 phone conversations with dispatchers, who successfully obtained enough information from him to locate him and procure a confession from him.
"It's almost like you have to put their shoes on that moment they call, walk it out with them and help them. You have to try get to their level, get to a place where you both are on the same page, and keep them talking," Jeff Ford, acting supervisor, said. "The longer you can keep the caller talking, keep communications open, the better it is for everyone involved."
Ford, a dispatcher for 18 years and a Trumbull County deputy sheriff, was one of the dispatchers who spent the most time communicating with Starr as officers tried to locate him. Ford said he tried several times to draw Starr "to come right and admit what he did and where he was."
"When you get a call like that, you can't judge that person," Ford said. "Sure, they might of just told you what they've done, that they've killed someone. But I'm not their judge. I'm not their jury."
As a dispatcher, he tries to get as much information as he can and relay it to police, fire and emergency crews.
"There are life-death situations sometimes hanging in the balance," Cook said. "The officers, for example, they don't know what they're getting into, what's really going on in any situation, at any given moment. They rely on that information."
A dispatcher can find out if a weapon is involved, if someone is hurt, if a crime is in progress, and get that message to emergency personnel before they arrive.
It didn't take long in August 2012 for the dispatcher taking Royce Honaker's call to hear " I just killed my wife." The Southington man immediately confessed to killing his wife, Donna.
"It's hard sometimes, but you have to be a friend and try to make a friend," explained Rodger Laird, veteran dispatcher and 911 center operations manager.
"When that phone rings, you don't know who or what is on the other end. You have to expect the unexpected. The best way to explain it is that sometimes it can be pretty routine. Other times it can be really intense," Laird said.
Ford's skills were put to the test when a man called 911 from a roof top threatening to jump off. The conversation lasted for close to 90 minutes before Ford was able to talk the caller down.
"I try to get a good rapport with the person," Ford said. "We hold it in our hand. If we make one mistake, it could go bad. But so much of it can go the other way. Those are the times you count on. Those are the calls you try to hold onto."
The dispatchers at the center of many of these calls explained the hardest part of the job is facing failure and realizing that you couldn't do anything to alter bad, and in some cases deadly, outcomes.
"We get a lot of bad stuff, a lot of good stuff and lots in between. We get to see all of it. But when a call goes good, a missing person is located, a life is saved, when it all goes good, that's a good day," Ford said.
Wednesday afternoon the 911 center was slammed with calls as a storm moved through Trumbull County, knocking down power lines and flooding streets and basements.
"It can be so quiet at times, but then that one call comes in that kind of punctuates your day or your night," Laird said. "You have to be ready all the time to expect the unexpected."