Audrey Fraizer

Audrey Fraizer

Story Vault

By Audrey Fraizer

DeKalb County (Ga.) residents can rest easier knowing that when a storm threatens to close down the metropolitan area, the county’s police department communication center is prepared for the response.

And contrary to the ugly weather-related mess bringing everything to its knees in January and February, center personnel were at the CAD working hard to aid residents overwhelmed by the snow and ice stranding motorists, shutting down power, and—for at least one caller—nearly prompting the delivery of a baby while stuck in a ditch.

“The city was in complete shutdown from the January storm,” said Cecile Graham, who has been through six winters at the communication center handling calls for a core of the Atlanta metropolitan area. “We don’t normally get snow, and if we do, it’s usually a flurry that begins in the morning and is over by lunch.”

This time it was different, and notably so, said Director Marshall Mooneyham. The National Weather Service forecast called for “precipitation” on Tuesday, Jan. 28, although it teetered on how much, how long, and what type.

“We had a briefing that morning with emergency management,” Mooneyham said. “Something was coming in and if that did happen, we’d be going to 12-hour shifts.”

Graham arrived at the center for her morning shift on Tuesday, thinking she’d be home safe before the storm hit later that evening. She wasn’t. The storm started coming in mid-afternoon and by the events that followed, it seemed that everyone working downtown had looked out the window at the same time.

“At about three in the afternoon, people figured it was time to start heading home,” Mooneyham said. “That’s what caused the major problem.”

The storm, stretching from Texas through Georgia and into the Carolinas, paralyzed Atlanta. The massive dash out of the city hampered crews from getting equipment on the road. Highways turned into parking lots, resulting in a reported 800 traffic accidents, although without serious injury. Some abandoned their cars, while others waited in overnight traffic jams. Call volume quadrupled from normal levels and at its peak reached 500 calls per hour. The center recorded a whopping 10,574 calls in a 24-hour period.

“Ice rink” is how Graham described the roads.

Graham stayed until 10 p.m. that night, along with her young son who had been dismissed early from school when weather predictions suggested something more onerous was coming. The generally 15- to 20-minute commute took nearly two hours and that was in a Special Operations Unit that police officers were driving to escort the stranded dispatchers.

“They had chains on their tires,” she said. “The roads were so bad we could have crawled faster.”

There was no reprieve from the everyday emergencies.

Graham spent 10 minutes on the phone with a very anxious dad-to-be trying to get the mom-to-be to the hospital before the baby was born. His car had spun down a drive leading from the couple’s apartment complex and was now stuck in a ditch at the side of a road.

The ambulance couldn’t make it up the hill, Graham explained, and she was in the process of preparing for delivering the baby when the crew arrived on foot, gurney in hand. They carried her down the hill to the waiting ambulance and made it to the closest hospital, although not the hospital the couple had previously arranged.

Two weeks later a second storm hit, bringing winds gusting up to 30 mph, toppling trees and cutting power for hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses.

Georgia Power Co. officials had recruited repair crews from other states in anticipation of downed power lines, and office staff answering customer calls took names and numbers that they then reported to the DeKalb County communication center for welfare checks.

Graham called an older woman who was reportedly alone and without heat.

“She was wrapped in a blanket and said she would be OK,” Graham said. “I said we could send help, and she said she didn’t want us to waste the gas.”

Graham called her every two hours throughout the night.

Graham was among the personnel staying three consecutive nights, sleeping on cots set up at the fire department’s public safety building next door to the 9-1-1 center. The overnight dispatchers kept warm at night tucked underneath blankets brought from home, and they ate hot meals brought in from the few restaurants that were able to open for business.

Calls were down from the level experienced two weeks earlier, which was a relief that Graham credits to Mooneyham and her fellow dispatchers.

Mooneyham said staff automatically fell into place.

“We get the job done,” he said. “Like every center, we have our ups and downs, but it always amazes me how well we come together when something like this happens.”