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911 Dispatchers Answer The Call on April 27

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Monroe Journal - 911 Dispatchers Answer The Call on April 27th

Monroe Journal Newspaper Article
Written by Colleen Conger | Photo by Colleen Conger
Originally published in print April 25, 2012

ABERDEEN, MS — On any given day, Robert “Bunky” Goza, Director, Monroe County Emergency Management, E911 & EMA, Deputy Director Donna Sanderson, Julia Moore, Jimmy Dodd, Joanne Barnes, Bo Hill, Brenda McCullough, Tina Edwards, Pat Gordon, and Nicole Allen answer 911 calls from around Monroe County. However, on April 27, 2011, all their experience, knowledge, and endurance would be put to the ultimate test.

Goza had spend the week in conference calls with the National Weather Service. He had briefed his staff during the previous 2 days about the potential threat of severe weather moving into the area. “I had seen the Weather Channel and local stations talking about the weather going through Oklahoma and Texas and how bad it was looking. The conditions were starting to set up just right for us to have some major, major problems,” said Dodd who was on duty that day with Sanderson and Hill.

This day, however, Dodd had a weird feeling like he had never had before. He normally doesn’t dread storms. “They come and go and hit all around us,” he said. After the damage from storms earlier than morning, Dodd commented to fellow dispatcher Hill, “We’ve been lucky around here for a long, long time. We might not be that lucky today. This might be our day.”

It was around 2 pm that Dodd decided to go outside and see for himself what the weather was doing. Everything looked calm until he looked into the western sky. “It was one black monster,” he said. I came back in to the dispatch area and said, “Somebody’s fixin’ to get hammered.”  As those words lingered in the air, the phone lines lit up. Reports of a tornado touchdown in Wren were pouring in. Trees were down. Highway 278 was blocked. People were trapped in houses.

A 3rd dispatcher, Barnes, had arrived just as the dispatch center started getting flooded with calls from the Smithville area. Every phone at every station was manned and taking calls one after another. “We had people taking calls in the kitchen and the bathroom doorway,” said Sanderson.

Reports were that Smithville was destroyed. There was nothing left.

“We didn’t have any idea of what kind of damage we were looking at because nobody was on the ground.” explained Dodd. “Once people started calling us on the phone and telling us what we had, that’s when we started making calls and getting people to the right places they needed to be and medical people headed their way. The more calls we got, the more we realized the kind of disaster we had,” said Dodd.

At just about the time the calls started coming in from Smithville, the power went out. Another tornado had taken down a TVA tower in Alabama knocking out power across Monroe County. The Emergency Management’s radio repeater was not responding, cell towers were either down or overloaded causing the chain of communication to be compromised.

The dispatcher’s worst fear was staring them in the face – not being able to communicate with the people you need to talk to to get the help where it needs to be.

Luckily, the dispatchers were able to go to “radio-to-radio” power. “You do what you’ve got to do to get things done,” said Sanderson. “911 dispatchers are literally your first responders getting the calls and passing them out, no matter the situation.”

Over the next 2 hours, more than a thousand calls came in. The average during a typical day is around 30.

Dodd recalled, “It was pretty hectic most of the day. You would have a quiet spell where the calls would lighten up so you could mentally regroup, but it wouldn’t last long.”

“It was very crazy and very chaotic, but organized,” Goza said. “Dispatchers are certified to handle situations like this”, but Sanderson said it also takes experience. “They hear it before anybody else and they all did a great job. It’s hard not to get emotional. Everyone of them stayed cool and calm and they did just what they were supposed to do. I’m very proud of them.”

In the 26 years of Dodd’s career as a dispatcher, April 27, 2011 was the worst disaster he’s ever experienced. He hopes he never has to see one like this again in his lifetime.

He then talked about the storm cellar at his house that the old folks built into the embankment. It’s been on the property since 1993, but he’s never been in it. This year?  It’s been cleaned out, a lantern put in along with some blankets and chairs… just in case.

Colleen Conger

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