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Dispatchers discuss ‘very busy’ call volume during ice storm

Officials said dispatchers handled three to four times their normal call volume as an unprecedented ice storm struck

By Robert Mittendorf
The Bellingham Herald

WHATCOM COUNTY, Wash. — Emergency officials in Whatcom County said 911 dispatchers handled three to four times their normal call volume Friday as an unprecedented ice storm struck.

“It was a very busy 24-hour period. We had a really busy weekend,” said Rob Wilson, division chief of communications for Bellingham Fire Department who supervises the fire and EMS dispatchers.

Frigid air sweeping south from British Columbia collided with moist air across Western Washington on Friday, causing an ice storm that crippled the northern lowlands of Whatcom County.

Some 45,000 homes and businesses were without electricity at the height of the storm, which struck hardest in Sumas and the rural areas around Lynden.

“Their training really showed through,” said John Gargett, deputy director of the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management.

Freezing rain coated roads, trees, and utility poles – causing car wrecks and power outages as trees and branches fell onto roads and snagged power lines. In some cases, entire utility poles snapped or toppled, dragging live wires that arced and burst into flames on the frozen ground.

Wilson said emergency officials plan for unusual weather and other disasters.

“We already have a playbook and we just followed that,” Wilson said. “That’s exactly how we want it to work. We all think the dispatchers did a marvelous job.”

He said two dispatchers remained on duty as another two arrived for their regular shift. A fifth person was “hired back” to ease the workload, Wilson said.

Bellingham Fire’s Medic One ambulance service staffed an additional ambulance, for a total of five medic units to handle the most serious medical calls countywide, he said. North Whatcom Fire and Rescue added 10 full-time firefighters and two officers, and fire districts serving Sumas, Everson and Nooksack saw volunteers staff their stations through the night. Lynden Fire added volunteers to double the firefighters at its station.

From noon Friday to noon Saturday, fire and EMS dispatchers took 147 calls to 911, Wilson said. There were 39 calls for downed power lines, 12 for falls with injuries, six for trees across a road, seven for car wrecks, two house fires and five calls from people who use oxygen for medical reasons and were worried about the power outages.

Another 53 calls were for medical aid – not all of which were storm-related but in many cases the weather made it difficult for emergency crews to reach the patient, Wilson said.

Wilson said there were four calls for live power lines that had fallen across an occupied vehicle – an unusual emergency even under normal conditions, he added.

“In my 40 years in the fire service, I can think of only one or two others,” Wilson said.

As the 911 calls flooded in, fire departments across northern Whatcom County adapted their staffing to cope with the crisis, said Assistant Chief Joe Noonchester of North Whatcom Fire and Rescue.

“It just got worse and worse,” Noonchester said Wednesday. “It was right at that time of day when a lot of people were on the road. I think it went pretty well considering how widespread (the disaster) was.”

Gargett said Whatcom County and its cities were still assessing damages, but they were likely to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

U.S. Postal Service deliveries were limited in rural areas because of danger posed by ice-slick roads, said Postmaster Willie Curtis. Puget Sound Energy’s online outage map showed that fewer than 50 Whatcom County customers were without power Wednesday.

PSE officials didn’t immediately respond to requests for updated damage information Wednesday.

Copyright 2018 The Bellingham Herald

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