Sherry Herzing has turned personal tragedy into a mission to educate the public and help improve emergency response to Lake Gaston residents, with a growing team of volunteers behind her.
Last August, Herzing’s husband, Bob, was across the cove from their Brunswick Co., Va., home when he went down with a possible heart attack. His best friend started CPR and dialed 911 on a cellphone, but the call routed to the telecommunications center in Warren County, N.C. The friend was told to hang up and call the 10-digit phone number for Brunswick County 911. Impossible to do when you have nothing to write with and you’re performing CPR.
Another neighbor called 911 on a cellphone, and the same thing happened, Sherry Herzing said. This neighbor ran back to his house and called from an internet phone. But the same thing happened yet again.
Three 911 calls from Brunswick County. All routed to the wrong 911 center.
Finally, someone called from a landline and got Brunswick County 911 on the phone and help on the way.
From the first call to the fourth, Herzing said, 23 precious minutes had elapsed.
Tragically, Bob Herzing didn’t make it.
The head dispatcher with Brunswick County 911 was so distraught, Herzing said, that she went straight to Sheriff Brian Roberts about what had happened. Roberts made cellphone calls from multiple locations in Brunswick County, and most of them routed to the telecommunications center in Warren County.
In January, Roberts was the speaker for the Lake Gaston Ladies Club meeting. He told the group about challenges around the lake with county 911 systems, such as the difficulty in detecting geographic locations of calls made from cellphones. Unbeknownst to Roberts, Herzing, a club member, was in the audience.
“I am trembling, thinking nothing has changed,” Herzing said of her reaction to hearing the sheriff speak.
She asked Roberts what she could do to help, and he advised her to educate herself, to go to all five counties and find out what their challenges were.
Before the meeting was over, she was in front of the group issuing a call to action.
“We’ve got to make changes,” she said to her fellow club members.
Herzing asked anyone who wanted to help to sign up before they left the meeting. Thirty-six ladies volunteered that day for what is now known as LKG 911 Community Task Force.
“It has blown my mind the number of people who have come out and asked, ‘What do you need? We’ve got to get this fixed,’” Herzing said.
So far, she has visited the telecommunications centers in all five Lake Gaston border counties—Warren, Halifax and Northampton in North Carolina and Brunswick and Mecklenburg in Virginia—and been welcomed in all, Herzing said. She has met with sheriffs and other emergency response agencies, and all want to help, she said. And the heads of the telecommunications centers in each county are holding regular meetings to discuss their challenges and work to improve services.
“It warms my heart,” Herzing said.
In Warren County, Sheriff Johnny Williams said he hates that Herzing’s tragedy happened, and that bringing the agencies together will lead to better services for the citizens in each state and each county. He explained that technology is one of the challenges the telecommunications centers face when it comes to issues such as being able to transfer phone calls from one center to the next, such as when Warren County received the phone calls that should have routed to Brunswick.
The task force has had meetings and organized into subgroups, with some 60 volunteers representing all of the five lake border counties.
A packet of 911 Help Resources has been created for distribution to Lake Gaston residents that includes a 911 help card for posting in homes, garages and boathouses. The card encourages 911 calls to be placed from landlines when possible and includes space for information that may be needed when making an emergency phone call, such as a home’s full address and subdivision, nearest major road and landmark, alternate 911 number and nearest defibrillator.
Additional resources recommended by the task force are reflective house numbers for mailboxes or entrance posts that meet requirements based on which county residents live in; flashing emergency lights; and automated external defibrillators.
“So much needs to be done,” Herzing said. “We’re trying to educate the public.”
Part-time lake residents usually have full-time residents who help oversee their homes, she said. The task force is asking those full-timers to get a 911 Help Resource packet to their part-time neighbors and talk to them about the importance of being prepared.
Also, because 911 callers can be visitors, renters or people who are panicked, it’s important for address information to be nearby, as noted in the resource packet, along with other helpful tips.
Marking all bridges with names and county names, locating boat ramps and getting permission to launch from private boat ramps, improving technology, asking private citizens to mark their boat docks to aid people who are having emergencies in the water; all of these things take time and effort, but Sherry Herzing and the LKG 911 Task Force have already made a difference and are determined to help save lives through improved 911 service at Lake Gaston.
“There is still a lot that needs to be addressed,” Herzing said, “but I am so encouraged.”
To obtain free 911 Help Resources packets for your home or homeowners association, or to ask a task force member to speak to your group, call Sherry Herzing at 434-636-4027 or Alison Mundy at 252-586-1530.
For more information, follow the group’s Facebook page LKG 911 Community Task Force.
Jennifer Harris is editor at The Warren Record in Warrenton, N.C.