These Sonoma County dispatchers stayed on the line to help others, even though their own homes were in peril from the flames
The woman on the line had called 911. She had her dog but was otherwise alone.
And she was terrified.
“She said she woke up and her whole house was surrounded by flames and she had no way out,” KT McNulty remembered.
Together, they tried to find a way for the woman to escape the flames, “any possible egress,” McNulty said.
There was nothing.
That night, McNulty was the supervisor overseeing Sonoma County’s 911 fire and medical dispatch center — Redcom — and she felt there was only one other option. It wasn’t part of her training, and she’d never instructed anyone to do it before.
“I said, ‘You need to get into the pool.’”
The woman didn’t. But she stayed on the line. And McNulty stayed with her.
“I don’t know why she didn’t, to this day,” she said. “I think she just panicked and maybe wasn’t hearing me.”
As the phones rang nonstop at Redwood Empire Dispatch Communications headquarters, where dispatchers sat shoulder to shoulder trying to make sense of what was unfolding and calm the terrified people on the other lines, McNulty stayed on this call.
“I was all she had left,” she said.
“Then I heard her and her dog start screaming,” she said. “The phone went dead.”
McNulty turned away from the console.
Quarters are tight. Colleagues hear each other working, hear the calls people are handling. Some details are shared on common screens in front of them.
They knew what was happening with McNulty and the woman on the other end of the line.
“I turned around to my team and said, ‘She didn’t make it. She passed,’” she said. “I wanted to turn around and vomit, but I was a supervisor, I had to keep it together for my team. The next phone call could have been just as imperiled.”
She took a moment and turned back toward her console.
“I needed to take the next call,” she said.
Unprecedented scope and fury
It was the night of Oct. 8, 2017, and into the morning of the Oct. 9, when a series of fires, unprecedented in scope and fury, roared west across Sonoma County.
The small crew of emergency dispatchers working in the call center on Ventura Avenue in Santa Rosa, began taking increasingly frantic calls about what would become an unfathomable disaster.
They didn’t know that the fires raging around Sonoma County and beyond -- the fires that threatened their homes, their families’ homes, their friends’ homes -- would become, for a time, the most destructive in California history.
They didn’t know that more than 5,300 Sonoma County families and homeowners would lose everything that night.
They didn’t know that 24 people in Sonoma County, and 16 others in Napa and Mendocino counties, would lose their lives.
And they didn’t know, and would not for some time, that the work they did that night, the calls they took, the way they navigated the disaster, would become the international model for how to handle wildfires that encroach on urban areas.
That knowledge and emotional processing, would only come with time and with reflection.
But on that night five years ago, all they knew was that the phones never stopped ringing.
On one end of the calls were the firefighters, police officers and sheriff’s deputies and emergency medical technicians, all fanning out trying to meet the disaster head-on.
On the other end were callers — there were 1,400 in 24 hours — increasingly frightened and frantic about the chaos unfolding around them.
The calls came in from the hills on the eastern flank of the county, from the hills around Kenwood, from Fountaingrove, and from west of Highway 101 when the fire jumped six lanes of freeway plus shoulders and the median and burned the Coffey Park neighborhood to the ground.
Callers gave street names near where a dispatcher’s brother, or parents or friends lived.
The disaster was unfolding on the streets they knew.
But the tools they had, the protocols they had memorized over years of collective experience, none of it could match the enormity of those fires.
People who were used to fighting fires couldn’t fight these blazes — too many to count and whipped by 70 mph winds.
People whose job it is to staff the phone lines, identify the trouble and then send help, had no help to send.
Firefighters, emergency dispatchers and first-responders of all kinds help people through their worst, most terrifying moments every day.