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Award-winning Sonoma County dispatcher prepares new script for help during catastrophic wildfires

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Special Coverage

This story is part of a monthly series in 2019 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here.

The frantic calls came like flying embers. One after another after another, Sonoma County people dialed 911 in mortal fear and begged for help. The emergency dispatchers fielding the calls had never before experienced such a storm of desperate pleas.

As the initially calm Sunday night of Oct. 8, 2017, gave way to the hellish morning of Oct. 9, wind-enraged wildfires roared into the county from the northeast. The flames killed and destroyed, and they ignited the phone bank at the fire-and-ambulance dispatch center within the Sonoma County Sheriff’s headquarters in north Santa Rosa.

“It’s all a blur,” KT McNulty, 37, said months afterward. When the Tubbs, Nuns and Pocket fires struck, she was on-duty as a supervisor of the center run by Redcom, the Redwood Empire Dispatch Communications Authority.

Poring over maps and thinking on their feet, Cloverdale High School Class of 2001 grad McNulty and her quickly enlarged crew of dispatchers did all they could to focus, calm, interrogate and advise callers trapped or frozen in place as the wildfires bore down.

McNulty recalls, “There were multiple people I told to get in a pool.”

She and the other inundated Redcom dispatchers had to tell callers they could not promise that help was coming, as the infernos had police and fire resources stretched beyond the limit.

With no printed protocols for assisting a civilian population besieged by a historic conflagration, the dispatchers extemporaneously quizzed the callers as to their locations and situations, and advised them to escape or to locate shelter.

“It was basically grasping at straws to find a way out,” McNulty said.

She and her fellow Redcom dispatchers asked callers:

-- Are they close to a clearing unlikely to burn, either because there’s little vegetation there or because or the flames have already swept through?

-- Might they have access to a pond or other body of water?

-- If they’re on a rural property and their escape is blocked, might they flee through a neighbor’s gate?

-- If trees or branches have fallen across a road, can they get their hands on a chainsaw?

-- Failing all other options, might they dig and lie down in a ditch?

Earlier this year, Redcom’s McNulty was singled out — in a big way — for all she did that night to counsel those who dialed 911 with their lives on the line.

The International Academies of Emergency Dispatch named her its Dispatcher of the Year. The Utah-based trade organization establishes and distributes procedures and protocols for dispatchers who handle calls for fire and medical emergencies.

McNulty was nominated for the honor by Aaron Abbott, director of Redcom.

He said that several times during the 2017 disaster, “KT gave life-saving instructions to citizens in situations that were so unique that no emergency fire dispatch protocols existed for them.”

Abbott added, “Many of KT’s ad-hoc instructions were repeated throughout the dispatch center during those chaotic hours, saving countless lives in the process.”

As a teenager and young adult, McNulty aspired to be a firefighter. But upon noticing in 2002 that dispatchers were being hired for Redcom, operated by the ambulance company American Medical Response through a joint powers agreement, she applied.

Special Coverage

This story is part of a monthly series in 2019 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here.

She quickly found that she loved being part of a 24-hour operation that receives all manner of emergency calls involving injuries, illnesses, accidents and fire, and dispatches fire trucks and ambulances.

“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.”

Now the center’s operations manager, McNulty no longer answers 911 calls. But she oversees and assists the people who do, and of whom she was never prouder than during the 2018 firestorms.

“Pretty much, everybody showed up and stayed for a week,” she said. She found it difficult to persuade her colleagues to take a break from their work stations.

“You had to push them away,” she said.

What McNulty and the others did throughout the fireborne disaster didn’t only attract a major award. The nonprofit International Academies of Emergency Dispatch has studied the questions they asked of 911 callers and the counsel they provided, and have incorporated them into new, international protocols for fire-ambulance dispatchers.

So now, dispatchers taking a barrage of calls amid the sort of firestorm that just in the past two years has menaced Sonoma and Napa counties, Lake and Mendocino and Colusa and Glenn counties, Butte County and great swaths of Southern California have protocols to turn to.

Said Redcom director Abbott, “KT and her team may not have known it at the time, but the work they did for those callers will now live on to save many more lives throughout the world.”

It’s one more reason that when “Dispatcher of the Year” McNulty looks about the emergency communications center on the second floor of the sheriff’s office, she senses that she is precisely where she is supposed to be.

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

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