During a wildfire, here’s how Sonoma County dispatchers alert residents and firefighters

Redcom dispatchers work with 27 fire and medical agencies across Sonoma County. Their goal is to dispatch first responders within 70 seconds of a 911 call.|

Redcom dispatcher William Buck was nearly eight hours into a 12-hour shift on June 29 when he took a 911 call about an unconscious 12-year-old boy in Santa Rosa.

He collected information for paramedics to reach the child before instructing an older sister on how to perform CPR. As he passed along directions to the sister his colleagues in the Santa Rosa dispatch center listened intently.

Paramedics soon arrived and Buck turned the case over to their care. Ending the call, he pushed back his desk chair and stood for a moment to gather his thoughts as the room fell silent.

The momentary calm, though, was brief as a rush of 911 calls resumed a steady rhythm.

Buck, a former emergency services worker, returned to his seat and commenced answering the calls.

Stoic and unwavering, the center’s 28 dispatchers carry out a daily routine very similar to Buck’s. They are Sonoma County’s lifelines in every kind of medical emergency and disaster, such as the devastating North Bay wildfires that are all but inevitable around this time of year.

Key to Redcom’s success is the workers’ innate sense of teamwork, crafted out of a combination of expertise and familiarity, augmented by the agency’s advanced technology, which provides emergency personnel with eye-in-the-sky smoke-detecting software and electronic scripts that streamline the dispatchers’ communications with callers.

They are indispensable facets in this region’s die-hard battle against wildfires, particularly in the years since the 2017 North Bay firestorm that destroyed 5,300 homes and killed 24 people in Sonoma County.

“We’re more prepared and more proactive than reactive now,” Redcom Executive Director KT McNulty said.

Indeed, the dispatcher’s role has become even more significant in the age of global warming, experts contend.

It’s no longer just about anticipating what might be needed, nowadays they almost need to intuit what, where and when help will be needed. Given the conditions in place today, a fast-burning fire can close in on a populated area with a speed that even veteran firefighters consider shocking.

Paul Troxel, the California Office of Emergency Services’s 911 program management division chief, explains that dispatchers must innately know how to multitask in moments when the pressure couldn’t be higher.

They communicate with personnel at the scene and receive information such as the need for more resources and evacuation measures, while also fielding calls from partner agencies and news reporters, he said.

They’re also handling other calls – some that may be byproducts of a fire – moving pieces all around, essentially “playing a game of chess.”

“I would say a dispatcher probably has the most important role next to the incident commander,” Troxel added. “They are the first of the first responders, because they’re answering the 911 calls that triggers the first responder to get out there.”

Types and number of calls per day vary, but Redcom data shows dispatchers had between 17,400 and 20,900 calls per month from January 2019 through June 2021. An exception was October 2019 when there were 24,108 calls due to the 77,758-acre Kincade fire.

It’s not unusual for calls to come in waves and force dispatchers into fast-paced environments that require teamwork and a calm demeanor to prevent callers from panicking and ensure emergency crews reach their destinations in a timely manner.

“Not anybody can be a dispatcher,” Troxel said. “As a dispatcher, you hear people at their worst, you hear things that you just can’t imagine. You have to be calm in the person’s emergency and you have to be able to provide that direction.”

McNulty knows all too well what it’s like to see her crew in action during the biggest emergencies, like August’s 55,209-acre Walbridge fire or September’s Glass fire, which burned 67,484 acres.

She praised them for their efforts.

“All the phone banks would be lit up. (Dispatchers) all communicate and have each others’ backs,” she said. “It happens seamlessly. They don’t have to ask for help.”

Hub for fire, medical calls

Redcom formed in 2002 and received its medical accreditation in 2017 from the Salt Lake City-based International Academies of Emergency Dispatch, which establishes and distributes procedures and protocols for dispatchers who handle calls for fire and medical emergencies. Redcom got its fire accreditation last year.

According to the IAED, Accredited Center of Excellence designation “is reserved for high-performing agencies that consistently put in the work to achieve excellence. It’s a distinguished award and badge of honor for those who go all-in to cultivate center-wide pride, teamwork, and innovation by putting their communities first.”

Redcom developed a 911 script that provides step-by-step guidance based on how callers respond to dispatchers’ questions. This followed six fires that erupted in a single night across Sonoma, Lake, Napa and Mendocino counties in 2017 and resulted in residents criticizing emergency officials for poor response efforts.

The script is a multi-question process in electronic form and dispatchers begin with basic questions with a goal of mobilizing firefighters and paramedics within 70 seconds of a 911 call.

Required information includes the address of the emergency, the caller’s phone number and the exact nature of the emergency. Dispatchers will also ask whether the sick or injured person is conscious and breathing.

Sometimes, Buck said, dispatchers need to think outside the box when a caller doesn’t have pertinent information. If they call from a hotel and don’t know its address, for example, a dispatcher may tell them to check hotel letterhead on a dresser.

As the initial dispatcher talks to the caller, a primary dispatcher contacts the appropriate agency for response before a third dispatcher takes over communication and runs the incident.

By this point, the first dispatcher is still talking to the caller or handling other calls while the primary dispatcher notifies responders or other events and moves ambulances for optimum EMS coverage.

Although each dispatcher has a role, they keep tabs on what their colleagues are doing and communicate with each other as events play out.

“A good dispatcher pays attention to room awareness and knows what’s going on,” said Frances Rossiter, a Redcom dispatcher of 19 years. “The biggest thing we need to know is where an emergency is. Otherwise, we can’t get help for you.”

Dispatchers can be “bombarded” with 911 calls and patience is “something you have to have in order to have this job,” Sarah Bacigalupi, a dispatcher of 10 years said between calls on June 29.

She took a call from a caretaker whose client suffered an injury and Bacigalupi asked questions, like where the patient was and whether he was alert. She also gave directions like putting away pets before paramedics arrived.

Minutes later, Bacigalupi took a call from a woman reporting a man collapsed outside Foodmaxx in a parking lot at Highway 12 and Stony Point Road in Santa Rosa.

Calls can hit close to home, particularly when they involve children, and Bacigalupi said colleagues rely on each other for support, like they did for Buck after he gave directions on CPR over the phone.

Dispatchers aren’t privy to outcomes and, on June 29, they surrounded a radio hoping paramedics would mention the 12-year-old boy’s status. Buck walked away without any new information.

Assist from technology

Technology is also a key component to making sure first responders reach their destination and much of it is visible in the Redcom office.

The 911 script is built into Redcom’s computer system and automatically shows dispatchers what they need to ask once they input answers to previous questions.

Meanwhile, Rapid SOS software, which zeroes in on a caller and pinpoints their location within 10 meters of their phone, McNulty said.

A Code Red Alert, which Redcom began using in the past year, will issue text alerts to those within the immediate vicinity of fast-moving fires.

And if dispatchers are the ones who need to relocate, Emergency 911 Go-Boxes contain equipment for them to work remotely. Boxes are placed in locations like fire stations. Also available is an Emergency Communication van, which serves as a rolling dispatch center.

Other technology visible across the room includes wall-mounted televisions for dispatchers to monitor important websites like the California Highway Patrol’s traffic log and AlertWildfire’s wildfire camera footage.

Since March, those cameras have been equipped with artificial intelligence software that detects smoke and may alert dispatchers before 911 calls come in.

Software zeroes in and places a small box highlighting smoke before sounding an alert that dispatchers compared to a fire alarm. During the last week of May, they received 60 alerts although some pertained to the same fires.

In recent weeks, the software zeroed in on incidents like a June 7 Santa Rosa fire that destroyed a log home on Hall Road, and the June 21 Wilkinson Fire in Clearlake.

Software was installed earlier this year and Sam Wallis, Sonoma County Department of Emergency Management Community Alert & Warning Manager, said should be available for two fire seasons.

The equipment ensures accuracy when responding to calls, although McNulty stressed her team is most important and they are indeed first responders.

“They’re going to help you until someone can get to your house,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Colin Atagi at colin.atagi@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @colin_atagi

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