NORFOLK -- When Ashley Mathews gets an emergency call at the Navy's regional dispatch center on Naval Station Norfolk, the first thing she asks is the location of the emergency.
Her second question: Which base are you on?
It's not something Navy dispatchers would have asked in the past because every base had its own emergency call center. But the service has been consolidating such centers from more than 50 installations around the United States into five regional centers, including one in Norfolk.
The move is a cost-saving measure that's also intended to help pay for upgrades in communications systems. But it has raised inevitable questions about how a dispatcher in Norfolk can quickly and accurately guide an emergency responder on a base the dispatcher has never seen.
When someone calls an emergency number from a building on base, the location immediately shows up on a dispatch center screen. If someone calls using a cell phone, the dispatcher can ask for a building number, street address, cross street, landmark or the common name of a building -- such as a commissary -- to identify where the person is calling from and start to send help there.
"We're working with the installations so that they can provide us a list of secondary place names," said Ray Lowe, the regional center manager in Norfolk. "No matter what they call it, if it's on that list, it identifies this building. That's something that in all reality is a living document."
The high-tech hub Mathews works in occupies a nondescript building near where helicopter squadrons are stationed. It will be responsible for answering calls for 14 naval bases in a region that stretches as far west as Illinois and as far north as Rhode Island. The consolidation began in other parts of the country in 2005 and will ultimately slash call center personnel from 800 to 371 once Navy Region Mid-Atlantic completes its transition next year.
Naval Station Norfolk, Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, Naval Air Station Oceana and Naval Weapons Station Yorktown have already shut down their local dispatch centers, and Norfolk Naval Shipyard is expected to do so by the end of 2018. Naval Submarine Base London in Connecticut is scheduled to switch over to the regional hub on Oct. 4.
Despite transferring services to the regional hubs, the Navy is maintaining the local dispatch centers and their equipment in case they're ever needed as backups or a decision is made to staff them again.
Capt. Monty Ashliman served as the commanding officer of Naval Air Station Lemoore in central California from 2013 to 2016. He said he understands why someone might be concerned about switching from a local dispatcher to a regional one where dispatchers aren't as familiar with local landmarks and geography.
He was skeptical, initially, when a regional hub in San Diego at the far southern end of the state started taking over emergency calls from his base.
"Wait, somebody down here? How are they possibly going to know?" Ashliman, who is now director of operations and public safety and Navy Region Mid-Atlantic, recalled thinking. "It was a seamless process, and a much better process on the other end."
The Navy says there are advantages to the regional hubs beyond just saving money. Each dispatcher in a regional hub is required to be trained to provide medical assistance over the phone until emergency responders arrive, which wasn't always the case with dispatchers in local centers.
Doctors at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth have approved a book with a series of questions that dispatchers in Norfolk go through to guide them in giving medical advice to callers.
Ashliman said supervisors also have the ability to review recordings and other data to figure out if any mistakes were made that could speed up future response times.
"When you talk about life- and property-saving efforts, I couldn't care less about cost savings," he said. "The priority is life and property."
--This article is written by Brock Vergakis from The Virginian-Pilot and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.