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