Sonoma Stories: Local dispatcher named best in America for ‘saving countless lives’ during 2017 wildfires

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How unlikely it seems that the fire-and-ambulance dispatcher judged to be the best in America would also be a locally esteemed skunk whisperer.

But it’s true. If Cloverdale High School alumna KT McNulty isn’t at work at the 24-hour dispatch center within the headquarters of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, there’s a good chance she’s speaking soothingly to a skunk or other wild critter in a bind.

As notable as she is as a volunteer with Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue, it is McNulty’s performance in her day job that has brought her national recognition.

Told of what she did to save lives under unprecedented circumstances during and following the ferocious Sonoma-Napa firestorms of October 2017, the Utah-based International Academies of Emergency Dispatch have named the 37-year-old McNulty its Dispatcher of the Year.

She thought on her feet when a Sunday night shift that “started off very ordinary” erupted into one anything but.

“It’s all a blur,” said McNulty, a gentle-natured 6-footer with short-cropped blond hair. She’ll remember forever when she and the other dispatchers in the second-floor communications center in north Santa Rosa peered through windows to the east to “see the flames coming over the mountains.”

As McNulty and her colleagues answered desperate 911 calls there in Redcom, the Redwood Empire Dispatch Communications Authority, they had no written guidance for advising people trapped or in imminent danger of being overtaken by ember-hurling walls of fire that surged from forested hills into densely developed neighborhoods.

So McNulty and the dispatch team improvised.

McNulty recalled, “There were multiple people I told to get in a pool” — and duck when the fire roared through.

Her boss, Aaron Abbott, said that on several occasions “KT gave life-saving instructions to citizens in situations that were so unique that no emergency fire dispatch protocols existed for them.”

Added Abbott, who directs Redcom, “Many of KT’s ad-hoc instructions were repeated throughout the dispatch center during those chaotic hours, saving countless lives.”

When the disaster struck, McNulty was a supervisor in the dispatch center that the ambulance firm American Medical Response operates through a contract with the county. She’d gone to work at Redcom when it was founded in 2002.

Now its operations manager, she recounts talking and listening to imperiled residents while she searched maps for possible escape routes.

“I would interrogate callers,” she said.

Can they get to a clearing, or to an area that had already been burned?

Might they flee through a neighbor’s gate?

Is there a pond or other body of water nearby?

If they are in a car and the road is blocked by a downed tree or limb, do they have access to a chainsaw?

Failing other options, can they quickly dig and lie down in a trench?

Some callers in dire danger plead for assistance and McNulty and her crew frequently had to say no firefighters could get to them just then. McNulty knows that some of those people died.

But she and the 911 dispatchers who worked marathon hours saved lives that October, and it’s virtually certain that they will save more through the urban firestorm protocols they conceived in the heat of battle and refined afterward.

Redcom put to print new guidelines for querying and advising people trapped or otherwise imperiled by firestorms in heavily populated areas. Many of those instructions have been adopted and published by the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch, which for 30 years has set standards for the dispatching of medical emergency assistance.

Abbott said McNulty and her crew “may not have known it at the time (in October 2017) but the work they did for those callers will now live on to save many more lives around the world.”

McNulty has found in the dispatch center, which last year received about 14,000 calls a month, her life’s work.

“I love that every call is different. Every day is different,” she said. “You get to touch so many lives in the course of a shift.”

She is insistent that the dispatch award acknowledges not only her but all of the Sonoma County dispatchers who served valiantly through the wildfire crisis.

Abbott nominated her for the honor. He said McNulty is integral to Redcom, and he’s aware she is the same to Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue. He suspects there are very few emergency dispatchers in the world who dash about after work talking down stuck or injured skunks.

Doris Duncan, who directs the Cotati-based rescue operation, said McNulty saves human lives as a career and the lives of animals as a passionate avocation. To her, McNulty is Skunk Whisperer of the Year every year.

“KT knows that not many people would go near a skunk to help it,” Duncan said.

These days, McNulty is proud of the dispatch award and also delighted with the new carrier that her boyfriend and her brother attached to the outside of her car, freeing her of the need to put rescued skunks inside.

You can reach Staff Writer Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 or chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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