COOL UNDER PRESSURE
September 19, 2014
By Mike Rigert
On April 29, 2013, Staci Uhl, a lead operator with the Woodbury (Iowa) County Communications Center, heard a radio transmission that no emergency dispatcher ever wants to get—shots fired, officer down.
On that day, Sioux City police officer Kevin McCormick attempted to pull over a vehicle for a traffic stop, but the driver had refused and a short chase ensued. Minutes later, the driver pulled over, and when McCormick exited his vehicle, he was immediately struck in the head by a round fired by a rifle-wielding individual who had jumped out of the suspect’s vehicle.
“Shots fires, black male, he’s in the passenger seat; I think I’ve been shot in the @^#$% head,” McCormick said in a transcription of the radio call. “Get me uh, I’m out here behind the Plaza Latina, yeah, I’m bleeding.”
Despite feeling alarmed, Uhl continued to speak with McCormick in a calm, even tone.
“I was shocked,” said Uhl, a 23-year veteran dispatcher with Woodbury County 911. “You can’t print what I said (to myself). But you can’t lock up; you’ve still got your job to do. You just take a deep breath and go.”
Ratcheting up the stress and pressure that Uhl faced at that moment was the fact that an active shooter drill was then underway at the comm. center in cooperation with the local school district and law enforcement. Simulated 9-1-1 calls were simultaneously ringing in to calltakers from a nearby middle school participating in the drill.
But within seconds of the call, Uhl was sending an ambulance to McCormick, keeping track of every police officer that was self-dispatching to the scene, updating law enforcement about events at the scene, and fielding a storm of questions from colleagues in the center.
“Every officer within earshot of Sioux City was headed that way,” said Wendi Hess, the comm. center’s operations supervisor.
She said 9-1-1 telecommunicators train and go through numerous scenarios and drills to prepare them for the most stressful situations.
“Staci was calm and she kept it together,” Hess said. “She performed her job in textbook form and way beyond what I would ever expect or hope for.”
Despite a gunshot wound to the head, McCormick, miraculously, remained coherent, stayed in radio contact with Uhl, and provided a description of the suspect vehicle and its direction of travel departing the scene. He was transported to Mercy Medical Center within 15 minutes. To the collective sigh of everyone, McCormick’s injury required only six stitches to the forehead; within days he was back on the job.
With the violent suspect, Jamal Dean, still at large following the shooting, Hess said the comm. center and the local law enforcement community remained vigilant for days as an intensive manhunt for the fugitive ensued and touched off a nationwide search. The shooting of McCormick was the first involving a police officer in Sioux City since 1982, according to the Sioux City Journal.
Five days later, Dean was apprehended without incident in Riveria, Texas. In August, he pleaded guilty to attempted murder and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
As a result of Uhl’s commendable handling of the shooting of McCormick and her excellent performance over her lengthy career as a Woodbury County 911 lead operator, on April 9, 2014, she was named Iowa’s 2014 Telecommunicator of the Year by the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials.
“Thankfully, veteran dispatcher Staci Uhl was my lifeline that day,” McCormick stated in the nomination materials. “Staci and I worked together in the seconds and minutes surrounding the incident and both of us were able to remain calm and move forward in a necessary manner.”
Later, at a debriefing for police officers and dispatchers following the shooting, McCormick and Uhl were able to meet and talk about the near tragedy.
“Staci exhibited her usual kindness and professionalism that has come to be expected and deserves exceptional recognition,” McCormick stated in his nomination letter.
Uhl said few words were needed.
“(McCormick) came up and gave everyone from the comm. center a hug,” she said.
As for the accolade, Uhl said she is grateful whenever dispatchers get recognized for their considerable role in the 9-1-1 process but shrugs off any personal heroics.
“I take it humbly,” Uhl said. “I think of it more as just doing what we are trained to do.”
A silver lining as a result of the incident was that it brought the Woodbury County comm. center and local law enforcement closer together and has given both a better understanding and appreciation of one another.
“I just hope it shows their trust in us,” Uhl said.
The Woodbury County comm. center is a consolidated center that serves a population of about 100,000 in the county and also two agencies across the border in South Dakota. It annually receives about 36,000 9-1-1 calls and about 200,000 calls for service.
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