February 24, 2014
By Mike Rigert
Within three days in September 2013 in New Orleans, La., two New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) 9-1-1 center employees lost their lives in two separate incidences.
Paulette Brown, 51, a 32-year veteran radio dispatcher with the police department’s 9-1-1 center (which takes the area’s medical, fire, and police calls), was on her way to work on Interstate 10 the night of Sept. 8 when her car was struck by a suspected drunk driver traveling in the wrong direction. Brown died at a local hospital from her injuries within days of the incident.
“Paulette was always talking about her family, was friendly, and got along with everyone,” said Stephen Gordon, executive director of Orleans Parish Communication District (OPCD, the administrative organization for the parish’s 9-1-1 call center) and previously a captain of the NOPD 9-1-1 center and Brown’s supervisor.
Then, on Sept. 11, Christine George, 39, a calltaker and co-worker of Brown’s at the NOPD communication center, was gunned down near her Gentilly, La., home along with her two adult children, 20-year-old daughter Trisa George and 18-year-old son Leonard George. All three victims sustained multiple gunshot wounds. Investigators questioned and released Shawn Peterson shortly after the crime, and arrested him days later on three counts of first-degree murder.
“For her [center] to get a 9-1-1 call on her, I couldn’t even imagine what [her colleagues] felt, and I’m pretty sure it knocked them on the floor,” George’s brother, Patrick Preston, told WVUE-TV News in New Orleans.
June Wilder, a chaplain for the NOPD, knew George and couldn’t initially process the deaths of both women.
“The word ‘overwhelming’ comes to mind, and ‘total shock,’” Wilder said. “That was the first time that I attended a triple funeral,” referring to the funeral for George and her two adult children.
Gordon confirmed that not only had Brown’s and George’s colleagues at the NOPD comm. center answered the 9-1-1 calls for each calamity, but also that off-duty members of the center went to the scene of the George family shooting.
“After Hurricane Katrina, this would have to be the worst tragedy” that NOPD’s call center had faced, Gordon said. “I was worried about the families but also worried about the 9-1-1 operations.”
The center’s dispatchers and calltakers mourned their co-workers and met with NOPD chaplains and grief counselors, while neighboring Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office dispatchers pitched in their own time to cover calls at the New Orleans center. The center’s employees were also deeply moved by the hundreds of sympathy cards and gift baskets that poured in from 9-1-1 centers across the country, Gordon and Wilder said.
“It was amazing, the outpouring of support,” Wilder said. “It let these [dispatchers and calltakers] know that they’re not alone.”Wilder said the healing process was aided by the fact that many in the 9-1-1 center possess strong personal faiths, and that simply having a chaplain present to pray with them was therapeutic. But what was difficult for many of the calltakers, she said, was to put aside their training of not getting emotionally involved with individual calls and, in this instance, mourn the loss of their friends and colleagues.
“I tried to encourage them to allow themselves to grieve, to talk about it, to cry, but to not keep it bottled up inside,” Wilder said.
To express their support for Brown, George, and their families, the center’s co-workers assisted with funeral arrangements and created memorial shirts in tribute to their fallen friends. At each funeral, the two women and their families were honored with a NOPD motorcade and a police honor guard at the graveside services.
Ausettua AmorAmenkum, education coordinator and public information officer for OPCD, said the tsunami of cards and well wishes from 9-1-1 centers around the country in the wake of the deaths had a significant impact on center employees’ healing process.
“Nine-1-1 is a community, and when we received that support from across the country, we knew that we were a nation,” AmorAmenkum said.