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