Familiar, that is, if you listened to a police radio on a regular basis.
Erika McComis of the Bridgeport Police Department and Angela Sessums of the Wise County Sheriff’s Office – both former dispatchers now in different roles at their respective agencies – were among the 11 deployed in response to a plea for assistance from Louisiana Telecommunications Emergency Response Team (TERT) State Coordinator Violet Anderson.
Anderson requested the assistance of the Texas chapter Aug. 30 for recovery efforts in St. John the Baptist Parish. McComis left at 3 a.m. the next morning; Sessums on a second deployment two days later. Both returned Sept. 6. It was Texas’ first out-of-state deployment.
Dispatchers at the St. John’s Parish Sheriff’s Office had been working 40 hours without relief. In addition to the aftermath of the storm, they were dealing with the loss of two deputies, a shooting in which two others were involved the week before and the storm’s toll on their own homes and families.
“They started the week attending memorial services, then came the storm,” McComis said. “They were emotionally drained. They were sleeping there, working there. To say they were overworked is an understatement.”
Dispatchers either volunteer or are nominated by their bosses to receive training for TERT. Once trained on different equipment and codes, they are put in a database to be ready to go “on a moment’s notice.” McComis and Sessums are among the 345 trainees in the database.
“They go out there to help emergency operations come back up to speed,” Bridgeport Police Chief Randy Singleton said. “The coordinators tell you how long the deployment is and how to pack, and you’re off.”
From the city’s communications center, the two fielded emergency and non-emergency calls.
“Every day was different,” McComis said. “It was pretty hectic. Part of our crew worked the search and rescue channel – what locations they needed to go to, what locations had been checked. Others ran between the communication center and emergency operations with messages.
“I would say 95 percent of the calls were storm-related – search and rescue, welfare checks, burglary reports, suspicious person (people coming in and taking stuff out of yards).”
The latter is what most irritated Sessums.
“The majority of the calls we took were people looting the victims,” she said. “To think these people had already been victims of a hurricane and were now becoming victims of robbery, it was frustrating.”
Although the two had 12-hour shifts, McComis often surpassed the mark as a team leader over the day shift.
“I had to coordinate who worked what days, made sure everyone’s needs were met – food, sleep, etc.,” she said. “Sometimes I was out of there by 6 or 6:30 p.m. Some days I stayed as late as 9 o’clock.”
The Texas TERT program was started in 2005 in response to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York City.
“For years and years it’s been that when there’s been some kind of disaster, we have immediate backup for fire, medical personnel,” said Christy Williams, NCTCOG 911 program manager. “In the recovery of 9/11, we realized we didn’t have anything for dispatchers. In the event of a disaster, a dispatcher is the first point of contact. They were working just as hard as the firefighters and paramedics, and they were not relieved at all. ”
That is what motivated Sessums to voluntarily enroll in the training.
“Dispatchers are the last ones that are thought about,” said the Sheriff’s Office warrants clerk. “Anytime there’s a crisis or something major, backup is sent for officers, EMS and the fire department. But no one thinks of the dispatchers. I thought it was important to recognize the dispatchers as emergency service personnel. It’s an awesome thing.”
For McComis, her motivation was a little more personal.
“Just to go in and help an agency,” she said. “We’ve been there when we needed help. With the death of Randy White, the county came in and helped. To be able to pay that forward and helping someone else out is why I did it.”
Coordinators commend that initiative.
“We heard nothing but positive things about the work these two ladies did,” Williams said. “If they didn’t know how to work the equipment, they took the manuals home on their off-shift and studied them.”
“We’re reaching out to help each other,” Singleton added. “No one agency can handle things of this magnitude. The next time, the emergency may not be in Louisiana. If Wise County had a big tornado come in and wipe out most of the county, this program would bring in emergency relief from places like Lubbock and Oklahoma City. We have to help each other out, and I’m proud of people like Erika who step up and agree to help.”