The lights in Howard County's windowless 911 center are dim. Flickers from strobe lights signal incoming calls. A "ding-dong" sounds when dispatchers need to send police or firefighters to an incident.
The darkness, flashes and tones help 911 operators monitor an orchestra of flat-panel computer screens. The accuracy of the information on those monitors can determine whether help arrives in five or 50 minutes, whether a criminal is captured or escapes, or whether someone lives or dies.
"The faster the caller talks, the slower you go," said Jamie Hess, 49, a dispatcher and retired firefighter. "The louder a caller gets, the softer you get. If you lose control of your emotions, you're not helping anybody."
Howard County's 911 center is in the basement of county government headquarters, a brick building atop a hill in Ellicott City and across the parking lot from police headquarters. The building's directory does not list the center. There are no signs posted at the door - only a buzzer, a card-key reader and a security camera.
Nearly 60 people work at the 911 center in 12-hour shifts. Glass windows split the center's three rooms. Operators take calls in the largest room and then digitally transmit reports to dispatchers in two smaller wings. The reports are used to direct police and firefighters to the scenes of accidents, fires, medical emergencies and crimes.
To keep things fresh, workers rotate from posts every four to six hours. During a one-year period beginning July 1, 2006, the center answered more than 302,000 non-emergency and 911 calls - an average of 828 a day.
Their specialty is "the worst day of your life," said veteran dispatcher Maureen Meister, 52.
"Even if you're lying to us, if you're calling 911, it's still the worst day of your life," she said.
The job requires patience and fortitude - skills that can be learned from parenthood as easily as they can from books. Producing satisfied and soothed callers is the goal, but customer service can go by the wayside.
The urgency or absurdity of a caller's request will occasionally spark an operator to issue orders like a drill sergeant or scold someone as if they were a child.
The callers who must wait more than 30 minutes for police to arrive are often the rudest. Dispatchers sometimes must hold calls for fender-benders or minor thefts while all available personnel in the area respond to an emergency, such as a search for a missing child or an armed robbery.
"A lot of people in Howard County don't realize that crime actually happens," said Melisa Duncan, 28, a dispatcher. "So, once you explain to them what else is going on, they calm down a little bit. ... But with some people, there's just no reasoning with them."
The uncertainty of the day can make the job stressful and exciting. As calls come in - sometimes garbled from poor cell phone reception or because the caller is drunk, on drugs or injured - dispatchers work as amateur detectives.
Center operators run background checks on people, license plates and addresses. The information allows them to alert officers if a person they are likely to encounter is wanted, has a history of assaulting police or is a frequent caller.
Using global positioning systems, the operators are able to see where officers' patrol cars are. In almost all cases, they are able to pinpoint a caller's location - no matter whether they are calling from a cell phone or land line.
And to further direct officers to the scene, operators are able to look at sharp satellite images of the terrain.
"We had officers from New York City visit us after 9/11, and they said, `We don't have all of this,' " Meister said.
Meister once received a call from an elderly woman driving home from oral surgery. The anesthesia or the pain medication caused her to lose control of her car, run off of the road and into a stream. Water poured into her vehicle as she called 911 from her cell phone.
The global positioning system pinpointed the woman's general location, but the tributary of the Middle Patuxent River crossed under Route 32 at two nearby points. Meister clicked on the satellite image of the area and asked the woman for more information.
"The last thing she remembered was skidding against a long guardrail," Meister said. "Well, the picture showed that one bridge had a long guardrail. The other didn't. I was able to tell paramedics exactly where she was."
Dispatchers' memories are an equally important tool. A Laurel resident recently called to complain about a woman going door-to-door soliciting money to bury her dead dog that she claimed was in her car. The car was filled to the roof with trash.
As one of the newer dispatchers turned to Meister, baffled about how to proceed, Nicole Noble, another dispatcher, asked whether the woman's car had a Florida license plate.
It did. Noble, 25, explained that the woman was "10-96," a police code for mentally unstable, and a frequent subject of complaints.