August 1, 2014
By Audrey Fraizer
As if answering 9-1-1 calls, asking questions, giving Pre-Arrival Instructions, and dispatching response don’t cause enough stress for dispatchers at the Walton County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in DeFuniak Springs, Fla., add to that a bit of the supernatural during midnight shifts.
“Many midnight dispatchers reported hearing strange noises in the halls and in the bathroom,” writes former Walton County EOC dispatcher Stephanie Manning on a blog she posted October 2007. “They’d sometimes go into the bathroom to turn off a running faucet only to have it stop the second they came through the door.”
Some dispatchers reported being locked in the bathroom stall and unable to get out because it felt like something heavy was leaned against the door, preventing their escape. Others heard toilets flushing inside empty stalls.
The flushing, locking, and untimely water shutoffs were only a sampling of mischief the EOC dispatchers encountered. There were loud thumps and the click-clack of shoes on the hallway’s cement floors. No one came forward to admit a hoax. No one was found in the act. Something otherworldly was affecting the EOC. The only rational explanation: Walton County EOC was haunted.
Admittedly, the word rational doesn’t apply to most hauntings. Rational people would prefer finding a logical explanation, such as wind whistling through an open window, a hissing furnace, or bad plumbing.
It was none of those things, Manning insists.
“While there is no definite way to prove whether or not the EOC was truly haunted, ask any dispatcher there at the time, and she’ll say without a doubt that it was,” she writes.
Dispatchers are, for most part, practical and no-nonsense personalities. They don’t let their imaginations get the best of them. They’re not known for a tendency to invent paranormal phenomena.
Most would probably follow Manning’s course. They would abide.
Walton dispatchers named their ghost “Sally Mae.” She wasn’t a malevolent or bad-tempered spirit. She was playful or, at least, a ghost that enjoyed attracting the attention of the dispatchers sharing her space. They never introduced Sally Mae to the new hires, figuring Sally Mae would see to it herself.
It might seem strange anyway, if they did. You start a new job and someone says, “Hey, I’d like for you to meet Sally Mae. She’s a ghost,” and the person would certainly think twice about coming back.
According to one story Manning tells, it only took two days for a new hire to call it quits. She made it through the first shift, but by her second midnight shift she thought her eyesight had gone fuzzy gray or there was really someone lurking in the shadows by the door trying to distract her. The dispatcher sitting in the next console ignored the new hire’s comments. After all, it was only Sally Mae.
“A few minutes later, she stood up and screamed,” Manning writes. “She got her belongings and after getting home, notified the supervisor that she had quit.”
The woman never offered an explanation. It was confusing. Sally Mae had never before caused such a strong reaction in anyone. Maybe Sally Mae wasn’t alone. Did she have backup? Maybe someone else was part of her story.
One dispatcher finally decided to do the homework. Her extensive research of county records turned up a tragic possibility. Sally Mae could be the aberration of a teenage girl heinously murdered in the late 1920s on the very spot where the EOC stands.
“Records show that she was in her yard when a group of males approached her,” Manning writes in the blog. “She was beaten, raped, and chained to an oak tree that was set on fire.”
Sally Mae died and the house burned to the ground.
Police found no evidence and never caught the suspects. Apparently, Sally Mae’s unsettled spirit stayed behind.
Although it’s likely Sally Mae’s haunting is connected to the particular plot of land and not the actual 9-1-1 facility, she may have abandoned her activities when Walton County relocated the communication center to a more modern setting. The former 9-1-1 center, built in 1978, was since renovated to house Walton’s Emergency Operations Management Center (EOMC).
The communication center-turned-EOMC is a model of Cold War charm: cold and foreboding.
“Cold” in the context of the increasingly chilly relations between the Soviet Union and its satellites and Western bloc countries during the period 1947–1991, although both blocs were copiously prepared to protect their countries’ security in case of an all-out nuclear World War III.
“Foreboding” because of the center’s Cold War architecture featuring reinforced concrete, equipment mounted on concrete pads to absorb shockwaves from a nuclear blast, blast doors, chain-link fences, stark landscape, and chemical, biological, and nuclear air filtration systems. Warning signs posted intermittently at perimeters prohibited unauthorized entry, under punishment of law.
These massive Cold War infrastructures were built in several states to support the development, testing, manufacturing, and storing of America’s offensive and defensive weapon systems. Military installations designated as staging and training centers complemented a network of defensive radar and communications stations and a host of command and control centers.
Some of these facilities are still serving their original purposes, some have new roles, some are disused and neglected, some have been demolished, and a few existed only as proposals.
The Cold War design of the Walton County EOMC is now the perfect fit for emergency operations, according to former EOMC Director Ed Baltzley during an interview available on the Haunted Places website (Baltzley never mentions the ghost, but describes the building’s construction and non-paranormal history).
There are no windows. Massive amounts of rebar were used to reinforce the concrete walls. A huge generator can provide emergency power during outages and when the facility is locked down. A high chain-link fence frames the grounds.
The Cold War-designed EOC still serves a purpose, particularly in areas such as the western Florida Panhandle frequented by hurricanes. During the past 138 years (1875 to 2013), records show that Fort Walton Beach has been within or near the core of a hurricane 54 times.
Maybe, someday, it will be the spirit of Sally Mae riding the eye to the next level, finally finding comfort. γ
•Stephanie Manning, Haunted Places: Walton County Emergency Operations Center, DeFuniak Springs, Fla., Yahoo Contributor Network, http://voices.yahoo.com/haunted-places-walton-county-emergency-operation..., Oct. 9, 2007 (accessed March 3, 2014).
•Protecting America: Cold War Defensive Sites and a National Historic Landmark Theme Study, https://archive.org/details/protectingameric00salm, October 2011 (accessed March 4, 2014).
•Haunted Places, Walton County Emergency Operations Center, http://www.hauntedplaces.org/item/walton-county-emergency-operations-cen... (accessed March 3, 2014).
•HurricaneCity.com, Fort Walton beach, Florida’s history with tropical storms, http://www.hurricanecity.com/city/fortwalton.htm, last updated Feb. 25, 2014 (accessed March 3, 2014).