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March 11, 2017 - 1:08am

Emergency dispatchers handled more calls for service in a single day than ever before on Wednesday

posted by Howard B. Owens in news, Emergency Dispatch.

Take the six hours between noon and 6 p.m. on Wednesday and Genesee County dispatchers handled more calls for service, 428, than any other full day in the known history of emergency dispatch for the county. 

And that's just six hours.

For the full day, dispatchers received 620 calls for service. There were 706 dispatch events, 507 9-1-1 calls, 597 seven-digit emergency calls, 12,350 monitored radio transmissions, 38,953 total radio transmissions and the on-air time for dispatchers was 36 hours and three minutes. (Calls for service does not include canceled calls or consolidated calls. Monitored radio transmissions do not include transmissions to highway departments, public works and other talk groups not normally monitored by dispatch.)

Wednesday, of course, was the day Genesee County got hit with a windstorm that may have included gusts up to 80 mph. As a result, more than 12,000 National Grid customers locally were left without electricity, trees were downed, trucks were overturned and homes were damaged.

There was also a four-unit apartment fire in Batavia, a pellet stove fire in Pavilion, and a train derailment east of Donahue Road.

"It was definitely the busiest day in the entire history of emergency dispatch," said Steven Sharpe, director of emergency communications. "It was definitely a hectic room, but we have some extraordinary people so we're not running around with heads cut off. We have our heads down, plowing ahead and taking care of business as each call came in. It was very business-like but we worked our way through it."

A normal shift of three or four people swelled quickly to 11 dispatchers in the communications center on Park Road as the calls came flooding in for reports of power lines down, arcing and sparking wires, accidents and the normal medical emergencies.

"It started off like any other day, then one thing leads to another and it starts adding up," said Sgt. Jason Holman, that day's dispatch center supervisor.

One of the more experienced dispatchers in the center as winds started to kick up was Nate Fix.

"I personally worked the ice storm of 2006 and the tornado in 2009 and we've had some tough, large storms, but I've never seen that many calls and dispatches," Fix said.

Sharp, who working with Russ Lang as kind of floater support in dispatch, Holman and Fix all described a nonstop call volume that didn't let up from minute-to-minute for the duration of the storm.

The storm combined intensity and duration to make for a very busy day for dispatchers.

Sheriff William Sheron said he was really proud of the job dispatchers did during the storm.

The fire at 404 S. Jackson at 10:30 a.m. struck just as winds started to pick up, but before their full force hit the county.

"When that came in, there wasn't a real relation for us to the wind," Holman said. "The process was more day-to-day operations and you get through it and you make sure everyone responding has the information they need to know."

Winds didn't get strong until after the fire was pretty much out.

Then came the train derailment.

Russ Lang took the call, but Nate Fix was working Sheriff's dispatch so he was the first to notify patrols.

He put the word out in a single sentence, calm and in control, but knowing an incident like that could be bad.

"My dad was the Corfu chief in '94," Fix said, recalling the most recent train derailment in the county. "I remember the tones going off and it was still dark outside. I was 12 or 13 and I probably shouldn't have gone on the call, but I rode along with him and I remember people walking out of the woods in the fog. My first instinct (on this call) was to make sure there were no people involved. There wasn't, so that changed my thinking. We don't need ambulances. We just need people there to check if anything is leaking."

With the wind, Fix said, we're fortunate there was nothing toxic on the train, because the wind would have carried it right into the city.

"A lot of things go through your mind when a call like that comes in," Holman said.

Fortunately, the train derailment was nothing more than a property-damage accident, but that was still near the start of a multi-hour effort to field all the calls coming in.

Holman said, though, for all the work and all the stress on dispatchers, the real burden of the day was on the deputies, troopers, firefighters, medics, and highway personnel who actually had to respond to all those calls for service.

"We do our part, but we've got some protection," Holman said. "We're not dealing with the hazards. We try to get the information out to them as fast as we can, so my hat goes off to those guys out in the field. When it comes down to it, we've got the easy job."

With that many calls coming in, coordination and professionally handling priorities are essential to staying on top of the call volume, both Holman and Fix said. Every call is logged in the dispatch computer and all things being equal, calls are handled in the order received, but anything that involves the potential for loss of life -- a fire, an accident with entrapment, wires trapping somebody in a car or a house, gets a priority dispatch.

Dispatchers know, Fix said, that their first priority is to take care of the people in the field and the people calling in for help. Dispatchers have to stay calm in the midst of chaos and assure callers that help will arrive as soon as possible, then calmly pass the information on to responders.

But while dispatchers are taking care of everybody else, they also have their own concerns, Fix said, as does every other emergency responder.

"...the hardest thing for any emergency worker, especially for the volunteer firefighters, is they don't know what's going on with their own families because they’re going nonstop with no time to think of their family," Fix said. "I’m not sure people understand that or appreciate it."

Fix noted that Genesee County was fortunate in another way -- a storm in March isn't that unusual, but one without snow or rain is. Snow or rain could have made things so much worse.

"It still just blows my mind that we got a windstorm in March and no snow or rain with it," Fix said. That’s just remarkable this time of year."

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