Home Local News Richmond County 911 celebrates 30 years of service to community

Richmond County 911 celebrates 30 years of service to community

Anna Auman, telecommunicator with the Richmond County 911 Center, beta tests a new screen. Photos by William R. Toler - Richmond Observer

ROCKINGHAM — A lot has changed since the Richmond County 911 Center went live in 1993.

People have come and gone and technology has advanced.

The past, present and future of the service were all part of the 30th anniversary celebration held Thursday in the Emergency Operations Center.

Emergency Services Director Bob Smith welcomed county leaders and former employees — including his two predecessors — to the late-morning event.

Jeff Smart, chairman of the Richmond County Board of Commissioners, said the county is “blessed” to have the state-of-the-art facility.

“I’d also like to thank the men and women of 911 who wear that headset every day, giving us all peace of mind knowing that they have the best of the best listening out for us,” Smart said.

“These men and women wake up every day and come to work, not knowing what challenges that they may be facing, yet they do it with such professionalism.”

Smart added that the anniversary happens to coincide with National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week.

There is currently an effort underway both statewide and nationwide to have telecommunicators reclassified.

Click here to read about the support and pending legislation regarding the reclassification.

Sheriff Mark Gulledge said that 911 has “truly made a difference here in Richmond County.”

“This 911 service has always been ahead of the curve and one of the biggest things I’ve seen in my time is the consolidation with full service, to include law enforcement,” Gulledge said. “And since that time, I’d say everything is running very smooth and we have benefited from the consolidation … We probably thought it would never happen.”

911 is the first step in communication before a call is routed to law enforcement, fire or EMS.

“Now it’s seamlessly done — everything under one roof and it’s truly made a difference,” Gulledge continued.

Frank McKay, the first 911 director, talks about the early days of the department.


The original operation went live on Friday, April 23, 1993 with 10 full-time telecommunicators and Frank McKay at the helm.

But before that, according to Smith, all addresses in the county had to be switched over from rural route box numbers to numeric street addresses with street names.

Smith added that, prior to the 911 Center, all calls for service — including for fire and EMS — went through the sheriff’s office.

“We succeeded because we hired good people,” McKay said. “One of my basic beliefs is that you can’t know everything … you surround yourself with people that perhaps know more about certain things than you do.”

Serving under McKay as deputy directors were Ginger Davenport, Pam Thorpe and Donna “Chip” Wright.

Wright also served as a training officer, along with the late Greg Hagins, and went on to be the director for a decade, overseeing the consolidation and construction of the current facility.

McKay said one of the calls that showed the importance of the system started with a hang-up call from Domino’s Pizza.

The telecommunicator called back, per policy, and the manager of the store answered. The telecommunicator asked if everything was OK and the manager replied, “No, it’s not.”

The manager then began giving an order for supplies and the telecommunicator played along, at one point asking if the store was being held up.

Two Rockingham Police officers and a deputy were dispatched to the scene.

The gunman had started to put the manager in a car.

“We don’t know what his intentions were, but he didn’t live to tell about it,” McKay said.

Since retiring, McKay said he doesn’t miss the job — “because any job in emergency services is a day-to-day headache — but joked that he does miss “some” of the people.

“It’s a challenging experience,” McKay said.


A lot of changes have been made in technology since Wright began her career as a telecommunicator with the Hamlet Police Department before moving to the county’s Emergency Services department.

Several obsolete pieces of equipment were displayed on a table in the front of the room near the podium that she and the other original telecommunicators started with.

At one point, according to Smith, Centel and Alltel customers didn’t have 911 service.

Those wireless calls that did come in, Wright said, only came in as a 10-digit number.

Richmond County was one of the first 20 in the state to have Phase 2 service, which provided latitude and longitude, according to Wright.

The county was also among the first to use GIS data for surrounding counties, Wright added. In the case of a misrouted 911 call, it would plot on a map and show the location of the caller.

“So, the things you young whipper-snappers take for granted, we were trying to integrate in the beginning when there were no standards,” Wright said.

The next technological challenge was Voice over Internet Protocol phones, followed by Next Generation 9-1-1. The local center was one of the first in the state and nation to handle Next Gen 911, according to Wright.

“North Carolina, still today, leads this industry with its technology,” Wright said. “And Richmond County was always the test bed.”

According to Wright, Richmond was the first in the state to use i3 call routing for the Next Gen system and the first on the East Coast to have electronic emergency fire dispatch.


The current center opened in 2018 and is one of the most advanced in the U.S.

“There were so many innovations that happened in this agency that most people never realize that little ol’ Richmond County was doing to shape things,” Wright said. “And the industry grew not just because of technology, but the people — investing in people and putting training in place that didn’t exist.”

In the early days, there was no training for telecommunicators, according to Wright.

“We threw you behind the console and said, ‘Go at it.’”

Now, telecommunicators go through six months of training from the day they’re hired before they’re “turned loose.”

Richmond Community College will also launch its telecommunicator degree program in the fall and started a nine-month online management training course.

Click here to read more about the telecommunicator degree program.

The 911 Center is currently beta testing a new wider, curved screen that could take the place of multiple monitors.

“Training, technology and investment in our people is what’s changed,” Wright said. “What’s expected of you today, when you pick that 911 line up, is totally different than what was expected 30 years ago.”


Smith was named emergency services director in 2021 following Wright’s retirement in 2020.

The department boasts four shift supervisors, four assistant supervisors, 14 full-time and two part-time telecommunicators, in addition to three other management positions. Several of the telecommunicators are second-generation.

Each employee holds 18 national or international certifications.

The center handles an average of 137,000 phone calls and 1.8 million radio transmissions each year.

But it doesn’t just handle local calls.

The training room doubles as an overflow center.

Recently, Scotland County 911 had some type of failure that caused them to have to leave their facility and come to Richmond for about six hours, according to Smith.

“Our folks immediately started taking their calls … and dispatching as they commuted from Scotland County (to) here,” Smith said. “Once they got here, they took over their calls.”

Because of cloud-based network and the VIPER radio systems, the Richmond County center can also assist other counties in the state in taking calls and dispatching.

“During Hurricane Florence, we ran into that problem,” Smith said. “Pender County got into a real bad bind. They had lost part of their radio system … so they called us and we actually started taking calls and dispatching for them from here.

“It’s a really good system the way everything is set up now.”

In 2021, the department started the Golden Knights club to recognize employees for exemplary service.

Five recipients — Jessica Johnson, Alan Hardin, Denise Mason, Mindy Shaw and Christine Collins — were awarded for their roles in helping through baby deliveries.

The other two — Cassidy Patterson and Garrett McInnis — helped save lives by giving CPR instructions. McInnis’ patient, who was from South Carolina, returned last September to offer his gratitude.

“Having this group,” Smith said, “helps us be able to prove that what we do is worthwhile.”

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Managing Editor William R. Toler is an award-winning writer and photographer with experience in print, television and online media.