TOP STORY OF THE DAY - National Public Safety Telecommunications Week

Saturday, April 8, 2023
IVY JACOBS PHOTO - Clay County Dispatchers Kaki Coleman(foreground), Collyn Vansickle(middle), and Clay County E911 Coordinator/Chief Dispatch Supervisor Melissa Gambill at work during a quiet moment at the Clay County Justice Center. NOTE: An extended story will be coming soon.

In moments of distress and chaos, a calming voice on the other end of a 911 call helps save millions of lives every day.

If it weren’t for 911 dispatchers doing their jobs, countless lives could be lost due to untimely assistance.

The weekend of April 1st roared into the Wabash Valley with a severe weather event; Clay County became part of a bigger community.

As the storm front entered Sullivan, IN, the 911 System lost telecommunication service and transferred to the Clay County 911 Dispatch Center.  Clay County is the backup for Sullivan County when the system goes down, or 911 trunks are full, and those 911 calls automatically roll over, and vice versa.

Three dispatchers on duty fielded around 200 calls for service from Clay and Sullivan counties that Friday evening and into Saturday morning.

It was an emotional night, said Clay County E911 Coordinator/Chief Dispatch Supervisor Melissa Gambill, who was on duty.

“I think that night; there was a mix of emotions. A feeling of helplessness knowing we couldn’t directly help the callers,” said Gambill. “A feeling of being overwhelmed with the number of calls. The feeling of accomplishment (when it was over.) Knowing we were doing what we are trained to do when a crisis happens.”

911 dispatchers are responsible for getting help as soon as possible to those in need and keeping the various police, firefighters, ambulances, or paramedics informed of the situation while they’re on the way.

“A dispatcher’s job is to help save lives and property,” said Gambill. “We are the vital link between first responders and citizens.”

The week of April 9-15 is set aside to show appreciation for the important role these calming voices play in public safety. The public is invited to use the social media hashtag #ThankYou911 or #NPSTW to express how grateful they are for all of the dispatchers around the world.

“I remember sitting in dispatch that night thinking that Sullivan’s dispatchers had to feel helpless. We are the voices, and that night for about an hour and a half, they were not heard,” Gambill said. “Every call has a story. In our job, there sometimes is no end, no closure. I will never forget some of those voices that night.”

Clay County Sheriff Brison Swearingen agrees that dispatchers are a vital part of the emergency response, not only in Clay County but throughout the country.

“I can not thank my dispatchers enough for the job they do every day, without hesitation,” Swearingen said. “If anybody is interested in joining the Communication Center at the Clay County Sheriff’s Office, please get in touch with 911 Director Melissa Gambill. We are currently hiring for several open positions for 911 Dispatchers.”

Call (812)446-2535 Ext. 5 to obtain an application at the Clay County Justice Center at 611 E. Jackson Street in Brazil, Indiana.

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The Brazil Times wanted the two other dispatchers on duty with Clay County E911 Coordinator/Chief Dispatch Supervisor Melissa Gambill to share their stories with you in their own words below.

Collyn Vansickle

I would like to say, "Everyone involved did a terrific job handling a situation that was out of anyone's control. We did as best we could with what little ability we had to get information passed along. And the amount of help and support that Sullivan is receiving from other agencies, departments, and citizens does not go unnoticed"

Kaki Coleman

I've been a dispatcher with the Clay County Sheriff's office for 8 months and an EMT for 7 years, working the last two and a half years with STAR Ambulance. I have experienced many things working these jobs, but a tornado was a first. The first call came in at 10:27 pm and was from a lady stating a tornado had blown her off the road. At the time, I didn't know there was an actual tornado hitting Sullivan, and I just thought it was strong winds. Our 911 call screen instantly lit up with 911s, filling up the whole computer screen. The next call I took was from someone saying the roof of the VFW had collapsed, and they were trapped underneath. My partner also began taking 911s, and it was at that moment I just looked at Collyn and said Sullivan has a tornado, and we're getting their 911 rollovers. Each county has a safety system in the event their systems go down. Sullivan Counties

911s and IDACS roll over to Clay County, Clay County rolls over to Sullivan, and surrounding counties work the same way within each other. When we first began taking calls, Collyn and I had no idea Sullivan County dispatch was essentially off the grid. It turns out their generator failed to result in their phone lines and radios failing. Collyn and I began answering 911's the best we could, with no end in sight. Between 2100-2200, we took 115 calls; between 2200-2300, we took 49 calls; and from midnight to noon on April first, we had 66 calls. This includes still taking calls for our own county, but the majority of the calls are from Sullivan County from 10:27 pm to 2:30 am. Due to the phone lines and radios failing, we could only get the information from the callers and advise them we would get help to them as soon as we could because even we were unable to contact Sullivan County for a short time.

Eventually, EMA command was set up, and we could hear them on 'GMA', a mutual aid radio channel for all counties in a certain area, where those counties can talk to each other.

I was able to reach out to command using GMA and get an alternate phone number to pass along the urgent calls for service that we had received.

Throughout the night, any and all urgent calls were transferred along this way. We also have ISP-Putnamville radio, and we could hear their traffic as their units responded to Sullivan to assist. So as we gave information to Sullivan dispatch, we could listen to the calls being dispatched between the two radio channels and some of those outcomes. To have the call volume coming in, hear the voices in need, and hear what destruction is being done, it doesn't 'click' until you see the photographs.

THAT'S what people were going through on the other end of the line.

Collyn and I almost felt helpless, with myself also being an EMT and Collyn also a volunteer firefighter with Centerpoint Fire, when our instinct is to 'run in as others are running out', and Collyn and I could just gather important information quickly and go on to the next caller until we could get this information to a Sullivan County first responders. But then we reminded ourselves we were the first to contact these people in their most important time of need and did our best to get help to them as quickly as possible.

We took calls of roofs, houses, and buildings collapsing and people being trapped, gas leaks, power lines, and trees down, some people were just scared and needed someone to talk to, or people asking for their loved ones to be checked on. Our thoughts are with the families of the 3 people who perished in the tornado. My partner took the call for the mother and son, Susan and Thomas Horton, and I took the call for Shane Goodman.

As we listened to the radio all night, our hearts sank when we heard the news. This job is rewarding but comes with highs and lows, good and bad calls, and sometimes, the unexpected. When situations like this happen, your training just kicks in, and you work together as a team with police, fire, and ems to help the citizens depending on you, with no thanks or praise expected.

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