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Blind patriots keeping Scott connected to the world

  • Published
  • By Monte Miller
  • 375th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Each day, 375th Communications Squadron phone operators answer about 1,800 incoming calls connecting callers to offices on base and deployed servicemembers with their families. 

It is a daunting task. It would be tough for anyone to navigate the 14,000 phone lines and more than 20,000 phone numbers on base. 

Now, imagine doing it all with your eyes closed. 

That is exactly what an extraordinary group of visually impaired operators have done here for the past seven years handling more than half a million calls per year. 

"They are an excellent team to work with," said Rebecca Petty, 375th Communications Squadron chief operator. "They love their jobs and love to work with the Airmen."
Mrs. Petty explained all of the operators are legally blind and use special computer software called T-metrics to assist them in their duties of keeping the base connected. 

Each operator wears a headset with two earphones. In one ear the operator hears the customer and in the other the operator's computer talks to them telling them which screen they are on and reads to them whatever number they are retrieving for the customer. Add in a Braille keyboard and they provide seamless service. 

"I think these operators are awesome," Mrs. Petty said referring to the ease at which they use the system. "I was trained on the software and thought I had it down. Then the instructor asked me I if was ready to do it blind and turned the computer monitor off. It was a lot different." 

Lead phone operator Essie Fortner, a seven year veteran, has not only mastered her job, but amazingly has practically memorized the entire base phone book. 

"It's a great job," Mrs. Fortner said. "I always wanted to be a phone operator because I've always loved talking on the phone." 

She explained the job can get hectic at times, but it is all worth it when she can help servicemembers connect with home. 

"I love that," she said. "They are overseas serving their country and we can connect them with their families. I just love serving people here on base kindly and politely." 

Another way the operators help the troops keep in touch is by buying phone cards at their own expense and dispersing them to servicemembers whose own cards may be running out of time. 

"We baby our guys," Mrs. Petty said. "Usually around the holidays, the guys will come in with gifts, fruit baskets and flowers for the operators to thank them for all of their help keeping them in touch with their families while they are deployed." 

Despite the extra challenges they face, Scott operators also go above and beyond their mandated standards. 

Mrs. Petty explained Scott's Q-time, or allowable time a customer could be put on hold used to be a maximum of two minutes. Because of recent staffing cuts, that number was recently raised to five minutes. 

"Our Q-time here has never been more than 18 seconds," Mrs. Petty said. "These ladies can pop some calls." 

That number is staggering if you consider there is only a maximum of two operators on at any given time and each operator answers 80 to 90 calls per hour. 

There are base operators on duty 24/7 answering all incoming phone calls. The busiest time of a normal day for the operators are the regular business hours of 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. with holidays being the most challenging. 

"We were slam dunked on Christmas," Mrs. Petty said. "From 6 a.m. to noon the number of calls doubled. Mother's Day was a nightmare too. What can I say, guys want to call their mommas. We had 200 calls per hour coming in and they (the operators) handled it great." 

Employing blind telephone operators has been an Air Mobility Command wide initiative and is in place at all 12 AMC bases across the country. 

Scott has teamed up with the LINC program in Belleville to not only fill their operator requirements, but also to also give visually impaired people in the region the chance to support servicemembers despite their own physical challenges.