Big Trouble On The Big Muddy

Becca Barrus

Becca Barrus

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The Missouri River borders the entire southwest edge of Boone County (Missouri, USA). It’s the longest river in North America, beginning in southwestern Montana and ending in St. Louis, Missouri, when it empties into the Mississippi River. In total, it runs a course of 2,325 miles (3,726 kilometers) and averages between 10 and 20 feet (three to six meters) deep depending on where you are. Like other bodies of water, it attracts campers and water sport enthusiasts especially when the weather is nice.

And like other bodies of water, it can be dangerous to tangle with.

According to Bailey Luntsford, an emergency dispatcher with Boone County Joint Communications in Columbia, Missouri, residents get a fair amount of flooding in the area, which means Boone County routinely receives calls about vehicles in floodwater where, thankfully, very minor damage or injuries occur.

“Getting [calls about] cars that have driven into the river isn’t a common thing,” she said.

Of course, in emergency dispatch, you have to prepared for the uncommon because it can—and often will—strike at any moment.

At Boone County, emergency dispatchers always have a 15-minute shift meeting before they go in and take over the consoles. Once they’re on the floor, emergency dispatchers and calltakers try to take over as quickly as possible so the on-duty shift can leave. On one fateful day when Luntsford reported for duty, it was already pretty hectic in the center. “Calls were coming in and traffic was going,” she said. “It was just going to be a busy time.”

As soon as she logged in to be a calltaker, she immediately received a 911 call where the caller told her he could see a vehicle in the Missouri River. From the looks of it, there was a single woman inside.

“My heart dropped,” Luntsford recalled.

All emergency calls have to be handled quickly and efficiently, but sinking vehicle calls are on their own level. Not long after Luntsford got the car’s location from the caller, responders were on their way. She disconnected once the responders arrived on scene, although she continued following the event as best she could through radio traffic while also taking new calls.

Thankfully, the caller made it out with minor injuries.

It wasn’t until later that Luntsford learned that driving her car into the river had been a suicide attempt.

“Knowing that it was intentional doesn't change the response or how I felt during the call, but it makes me a little sadder knowing that this person wanted to kill themselves,” Luntsford said. “I'm also relieved that they get to have another chance at getting better and getting the help that they need to continue to live and make a difference.”

It was her first time handling a sinking vehicle incident, and she can’t recall anyone else taking any calls like it since she began working for Boone County four years ago.

Luntsford was raised around public safety her entire life, knowing that she wanted to be part of the elite team that continues to help their community. After giving other fields and positions consideration, she eventually decided on emergency dispatch and hasn’t looked back since.

Boone County Joint Communications is housed in a beautiful building that was finished in 2015. Currently, emergency dispatchers work eight-hour shifts with four days on and two days off. On any given shift, there can be anywhere from five to eight people. However, like many other centers across the nation, they are experiencing a staffing shortage, meaning that Boone County teams pull a lot of overtime.

Luntsford’s favorite part about her center is that they’re all pretty close-knit. “It's really just like an extended family. We celebrate events and milestones for each other inside and outside the center.”