25 Years In Emergency Communications
March 1, 2023
Dispatch in Action
James Tabron’s morning was not off to a good start. Although the St. Louis Fire Department, Missouri (USA), emergency communication Senior Fire Equipment Dispatcher was not scheduled to work, his day to relax with family and run errands was rattled by an incident at the high school his niece attends.
A shooter at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School in south St. Louis early Monday morning, Oct. 24, breached the school despite locked entrance doors, and upon gaining access shot a woman who was pronounced dead at a hospital and a teen girl who was killed at the scene.1 The shooter was a man who appeared to be about 20 years old, and in addition to those killed, multiple people were taken to the hospital with injuries ranging from gunshot wounds to shrapnel hits.
His niece was not injured in the incident.
According to same day news reports, the suspect engaged in a shootout with police and was pronounced dead at the scene.2 Central Visual and Performing Arts High School and the Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience, which are in the same building, were placed on lockdown. Central has 383 students and Collegiate has 336 students.3
Tabron has heard and seen a lot during his 25 years in emergency communications. The St. Louis Fire Department dispatches medical and fire and uses the Medical Priority Dispatch System™ (MPDS®). He’s given over-the-phone CPR too many times to count, coordinated HAZMAT incidents, and—to make a long list short—probably referred to every MPDS Chief Complaint in his more than two decades of calltaking and dispatch. He’s also sent dispatch to shootings.
“St. Louis has its fair share of shootings but not at schools,” he said. “It’s something you never want, you dread, and with my niece at the school, it raised the incident to a whole different level.”
Tabron’s career in public service spans 31 years, including his military service—he was a firefighter—and five years following his honorable discharge firefighting in St. Louis. He was shot in an off-duty incident and sustained a spinal injury that paralyzed him from the waist down.
No longer able to fight fires, Tabron transferred to city administrative offices until he decided to give emergency communications a try. The transition from firefighting to communication took some time adjusting. “I’ve always believed if you can’t find what you’re looking for right away, you make it,” he said. “I feel real good about what I’m doing.”
Tabron applied the principle to recruiting emergency dispatchers. Applications at the fire department communication center were down and the turnover, like at other centers, was up, prompting him to develop a “learn and earn” program in 2021. He liaised with St. Louis high schools and the St. Louis Fire Department and, during the program’s first year, recruited seven senior-level high school students for a semester-long internship that paid them $10 an hour.
“If you don’t have emergency dispatchers, you make them,” he said. “You expose interested students to the profession, nurture them, and shape them into what you need.” Of course, not everyone is suited, and a modest goal to retain, for example, one out of seven replenishes the turnover rates. He’s “very optimistic” in getting a pipeline going and keeping both the center and program buoyant.
The St. Louis Fire Department was part of the school shooting coordinated response.
1 Watts A, Alvarado C, Murphy P. “Adult and teen killed in St. Louis school shooting, police say.” CNN. 2022; Oct. 24. https://www.cnn.com/2022/10/24/us/st-louis-school-shooting (accessed Oct. 24, 2022).
2 “2 killed in shooting at St. Louis high school; gunman also killed.” CBS News. 2022; Oct. 24. https://www.cbsnews.com/live-updates/st-louis-high-school-shooting-students-injured/ (accessed Oct. 24, 2022).
3 See note 2.