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Unsung heroes of the flood

Dispatchers are first of the first responders

Published: Saturday, April 27, 2013 5:00 a.m. CDT

(Continued from Page 2)

As emergency responders made numerous water rescues and evacuations during last week’s flood, there were some unseen and unsung heroes also instrumental in those efforts.

The Grundy County 911 Center dispatchers.

“We are the first of the first responders. We are the first contact,” said Donna Holtan, 9-1-1 director at the center.

“Our responsibility is to assist the public with emergency needs, get the responders going that are needed, and we always pray for a wonderful outcome at the end, or at least a happy one.”

On a normal shift at the dispatch center, there are four dispatchers per 12-hour shift. Thursday morning, April 18, when water was flooding onto Morris’ streets and into people’s homes, they called in two more, bringing it to six dispatchers, said Holtan.

“They were phenomenal. Really impressive,” she said.

A new part-time dispatcher who is still training, said Holtan, was given the “ultimate initiation and did awesome.”

“We had six on during the day, six at night, and six Friday, which was our saving grace because we had more calls then because someone started a rumor that the (Illinois River) bridge was closed.”

The center was inundated with calls Friday as rumors flew through town and on social media sights that the bridge taking Illinois 47 over the river was closed. It never completely closed, just one lane northbound to the bridge from Pine Bluff Road was shut due to water on the roadway.

The calls were coming in on both the dispatch line and through 9-1-1, something dispatchers want to remind the community not to do.

“Our priority is 9-1-1 first, which is for emergencies. When the public utilizes 9-1-1 to simply ask questions, it depletes our resources from handling an actual emergency,” said Holtan.

So many calls were coming in the dispatchers had trouble calling out to townships, cities, and emergency agencies for more apparatuses, ambulances and boats for evacuations.

In two,12-hour shifts, the 911 center handled a number of calls equivalent to 20 percent the number it normally receives in an entire month, said Holtan.

Usually dispatchers are broken down by department on specific shifts, but that day they had to grab whatever calls they could.

Dispatcher Bob Wills, who is also the assistant fire chief for Morris Fire Protection and Ambulance District, however, was in charge of all fire calls. Wills used to be the head of Morris’ dispatchers when the city and county dispatchers were separate units.

Having a fire personnel member on shift was an enormous help, said Holtan. Wills knew what the responders were in need of and where to find it, and, therefore, was able to assist the other dispatchers with this information.

The center received about 10 times the fire calls it usually does, and three times the police calls.

“We all worked together famously and everyone did their part and more,” said Wills.

Although Wills is both a dispatcher and a fire chief, he was not torn on where he wanted to be during the flooding emergencies. He said the only difficult part about being in the dispatch center, rather then on scene, during a natural disaster is the worry.

“It was different when I was younger. Then it was, ‘oh, yeah, I want to be out there with the guys’ ...but I’m not as fast as I used to be. I’m not as capable as I was when I was a lot younger,” said Wills.

“The part of me that wishes I could be with the guys is because I worry about them. I worry about the guys getting into a situation. I know they are capable of handling it, but when I’m not there, I tend to worry about a lot of things.”

WIDER FOCUS

Just because Morris was flooded, didn’t mean the rest of the county was at a stand still. They still had to handle accident, fire, EMS and domestic calls from the other towns and cities in the county.

“We handle everything that comes around and it all happens in split seconds,” said Wills. “You have to know where your resources are, what city they’re from and where they’re going. And you have to plan for unseen things.”

This is why opening the Emergency Operations Center was imperative to the dispatch center, he said. Having the representatives in place at different commands allows for the dispatchers to hand off non-emergency calls to the EOC. For example calls regarding where displaced victims could go for shelter, public works calls for barricades, or responders needing to close roads.

Another asset in handling the flooding was having the Morris and Grundy dispatchers combined, said Holtan. In the 2008 flood, the dispatchers were separate. So although the county and city had high call volume, the county overall did not flood like Morris did, so Grundy dispatchers didn’t have the same amount and types of calls as Morris had.

So last week, if they were still separate, they wouldn’t have had the experience of the Morris dispatchers handling the flooding that was occurring in the area.

“It was a blessing we combined,” said Holtan. “It truly was because all that combined effort was in one room.”

WILLS REACTS

After 31 years as a dispatcher, little shocks Wills, but what surprised him about this flood was the extent of the flash flooding.

When talking to first responders, they kept hearing that they made it to the scene, but then couldn’t get out because the road had become impassable and they needed an alternate route. The water was moving so quickly that, within minutes, previously unaffected areas were flooded.

“We had calls that water was coming through buildings and around buildings that have never been flooded before. That surprised me,” said Wills.

He’s dealt with emergency situations where the city has received seven inches of rain overnight, but he’s never seen the flash flooding like last week’s.

Due to the quickness of the flash flooding, the fire district, EMA and other agencies will be investigating if there was a particular cause behind this, such as the collapse of Morris’ I & M Canal aqueduct.

The city and county need to know if it is possible for this to happen again, said Wills, in order to prepare.

“The problem with flash flooding is we can never predict it. We hope for the best and plan for the worst,” he said.

With a blizzard, you can prepare days before. The chief can develop an action plan so when the snow hits, they have extra equipment and staffing ready, said Wills. With flash flooding, it’s harder to predict where the water is going to go and how much there will be.

A week after the flooding, the pride still beams from the center’s leader, Holtan, and the veteran dispatcher, Wills.

“I’m so proud of them. They’re my quiet unsung heroes,” said Holtan.

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