Utah dispatchers describe 911 tornado calls

One dispatcher said he fell back on his training to remain calm as 911 calls spiked after a tornado hit


By Loretta Park
The Standard-Examiner

WASHINGTON TERRACE, Utah — The first time Weber Area dispatcher Kevin Messer heard about a tornado touching down in Washington Terrace on Sept. 22, it wasn’t through a 911 call. 

It was his daughter’s text message. 

“Basically it said, the house was hit by a tornado, two trees are down and there’s a hole in the roof,” said Messer, who has been a dispatcher for more than 4 years. 

“Then it was non-stop (911) calls,” Messer said. “It got crazy really quick.” 

Messer said he took a minute to text his daughter to make sure his wife and other two children were OK, all while taking 911 calls concerning the destruction the storm left in its wake. 

“I felt like I needed to go home as soon as possible, but I had a job to do and no one was hurt or needed medical attention, so I stayed,” Messer said. 

Messer said he fell back on his training to remain calm as he took 911 calls from residents and did not worry about his family.

Dispatch supervisors in Weber, Davis, Layton and Clearfield said the call volume from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. was dramatically higher than any other time they have worked as dispatchers. 

Sarita Hammond, supervisor for Weber Area Dispatch Center, said her shift was supposed to end at 4 p.m. but when the calls flooded the dispatch center shortly after 3:30 p.m. she knew was staying. 

When the first call came in, 13 dispatchers, including supervisors, were in the center. Within minutes, three more people arrived to help with calls, including Ogden Battalion Fire Chief Corey Barton, Hammond said.

Every dispatch center received the National Weather Service alert that a big storm was coming — but how quickly it came and the damage it inflicted was still a shock.

Layton dispatch supervisor Lisa Murdock said every screen was overloaded with calls coming in, not just through 911 lines but also to non-emergency lines. Layton had four dispatchers scheduled to work, but brought in two additional dispatchers to help. 

Dispatchers said too often, people called dispatch centers wanting to know when their electricity would be restored or to complain about parking problems. Those calls plugged up lines, while others with emergency situations were waiting for a dispatcher to answer the phones, Murdock said. 

Dispatchers have to decide how serious the emergency is from the information given before they call fire or police. For example, if a tree is on fire due to power lines sparking, that is an incident that takes priority over a tree fallen on parked car in a driveway.

Wendy Brimhall, Clearfield dispatcher supervisor, said she had just got off Interstate 15 when the storm hit. For about 10 minutes after she arrived to work, she took calls and wrote on sticky notes to relay information to emergency crews because her computer was taking too long to boot up.

When a 911 call comes into a dispatch center, computer screens show how many calls are coming in, how many dispatchers are available to take calls and how many officers or fire crews are responding to calls. Weber and Davis dispatch supervisors said every 911 call is answered by a live person. If the call volume gets too high, then the call overflow is transferred to another dispatch center.

But on Sept. 22, though the call volume was much higher than normal, dispatchers said they were able to handle all calls.

Hammond said the rule at Weber dispatch is for calls to be answered within 10 seconds of the first ring. Their screens will turn calls yellow if they’ve been ringing longer than 10 seconds, then after another 10 seconds, it turns red. 

“It basically stayed red until after six,” Hammond said.

Officers like Layton Police Sgt. Clint Bobrowski said the storm was a good reminder to prepare for emergencies because emergency responders may not arrive as quickly as they otherwise would.

“Everyone should be prepared to take care of themselves in an emergency situation,” Bobrowski said.

Davis dispatch supervisor Amanda Glezos reported similar experiences the evening of the storm, calling in a fifth dispatcher to help as the call volume soared. “It got pretty overwhelming pretty quick,” she said.

When it came to which calls to send emergency personnel, the rule is always “life over property,” Glezos said. 

Glezos said she was working Dec. 1, 2011, when a windstorm caused millions of dollars of damage throughout the county. Even though the dispatch center was busy that day, it was not like the recent storm.

“That windstorm was an all-day event, but this one was all at once,” Glezos said.

 

Copyright 2016 the Standard-Examiner 

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