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NC NENA president Jonathan Bledsoe (right), presented the Communications Team Award to  Cynthia Short (left) and Tammy SaundersAlthough the Catawba County Communications Center handles dozens of emergency calls each day, many out of the ordinary, a call on the morning of August 14, 2013 was especially challenging. A woman’s voice was heard saying, “someone’s in my house…”. Most of the rest of the call was filled with threats in a man’s voice, shouting and the woman’s screams.

A team of telecommunicators from the Center who worked cooperatively on the call tried everything they could to find the woman. They were eventually able to obtain the cell phone number of the suspect. Although the incident ended with the woman’s death in Gaston County when she was hit by other vehicles after escaping from her kidnapper on Highway 321, the work of the team led to the surrender of the suspect, who was later convicted.

The team that includes Shift Supervisor Tammy Saunders (second from left in photo) and Radio Telecommunicators Cynthia Short (at left in the photo), Greg Holland and Matthew Sparks has been recognized for its work on that morning with the Communications Team of the Year Award from the North Carolina Chapter of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). They were presented with the honor by NC NENA President Jonathan Bledsoe at the October 20 meeting of the Catawba County Board of Commissioners (on the right in the photo; Holland and Sparks could not attend the meeting.)

“This team went above and beyond their normal duties during this call,” said Jerry Boggs, Catawba County’s Telecommunications Administrator. “The 911 Center received a disturbing call from the stepfather of the victim who got a call from the suspect, who said he had the man’s daughter and had stabbed her. A Communications Center team member was able to get the suspect’s name and cell number, and team members called the suspect and tried to get him to tell them where the female was, and her condition. A member of the team continued to talk to the suspect, trying to get him to turn himself in, while others searched for the description of any vehicle in which the subject might have been traveling. After a long and grueling shift, they were able to get the suspect to come back to Catawba County and surrender.”

The Communications Team’s actions led to the surrender of the suspect, Aaron Compton, Jr., who was convicted in April 2014 for the kidnapping and murder of Tabatha Spake Heavner, and sentenced to life in prison.

Saunders is a Conover native who attended St Stephens High School. She began 911 dispatch work after graduating from high school, working in the Hickory Police Department’s Communications Center from 1984-1987, when she began working as a Supervisor with Iredell County Emergency Services. She returned to Catawba County 911 in 1989 and is now Third Shift Supervisor.

Short began working for Catawba County in August 2003. Holland has been with Catawba County since June 2012 and Sparks began working in the Communications Center in October 2009. All three began working for the County with the title of Radio Telecommunicator and all currently hold that title.

“These types of calls are extremely hard on a 911 operator,” Boggs added. “They are the first contact anyone has when a tragedy strikes. At a moment’s notice, they are hostage negotiators, mental health workers, pastors, and sometimes their best friend. While most people go home after a day’s work and relax, the work of a 911 operator stays with you for a long time. It’s hard to sleep and not hear those screams and desperate pleas for help. But every night they return, never knowing what’s on the line when they answer Catawba County 911."