KEEPING THE FOCUS
July 30, 2015
By Audrey Fraizer
The eight minutes ticking by after 7:40 a.m. on Sunday, April 19, most likely represented the longest chunk of time in the life of 13-year-old Marcus McCoy and his 9-year-old sister Aaliyah.
Marcus and Aaliyah were upstairs in their bedrooms when thick smoke in the hallway choked off their escape from the family’s two-story home in Clinton, Md. Marcus dialed 9-1-1. Aaliyah was in the room beside him.
“Tell me exactly what happened,” asks Kristen Ritter, EMD, EFD, EPD, Prince George’s Public Safety Communications, after she verifies their address.
“I think my parents are asleep,” Marcus replies, over the background cries of his younger sister. “The house is smoky.”
Ritter keeps Marcus focused and on the line talking, reassuring him, gathering information, and providing Pre-Arrival Instructions (PAIs) from the Fire Priority Dispatch System (FPDS). The firefighters en route are tuned into the constant stream of information from Dispatcher Hunter Dashnaw, EMD, EFD, EPD.
“Stay low to the floor,” Ritter tells Marcus, continuing through the PAIs.
Marcus follows Ritter’s instructions, closing the door while telling his sister to remain low to the floor.
Ritter asks where they are in the home.
Marcus calmly describes the location of the bedroom—up the stairs, to the right, and the last door on the right. There is a window firefighters can break to rescue them. Outside the room, the phone picks up the sounds of voices.
“Mom, mom,” Marcus calls out.
He asks Ritter what to do. If they’re able have them leave, she advises.
“Get out, get out,” he tells them. “I’ve called firefighters.”
Ritter repeats the PAIs; the phone picks up his scuffling across the floor to the window but it’s too hot and smoky inside the room.
“You’re doing a great job,” Ritter says to Marcus. “Stay low to the ground.”
Aaliyah is frightened. “We’re going to die,” she cries.
“Aaliyah, please don’t say that,” Marcus responds.
Seconds tick by. “You guys are doing great,” Ritter repeats.
Marcus turns his attention to Aaliyah.
“Aaliyah, stay low to the door,” he says. “Come here. Breathe. Stay right here.”
“They’re coming. It’s OK,” Ritter tells Marcus.
At eight minutes, seven seconds sirens are heard. Seconds later, a firefighter announces, “We’re here. We’re here.”
Shattering glass is heard. A second firefighter arriving on scene goes through the front door and up the stairs. The two firefighters reach the brother and sister simultaneously. One of the firefighters removes his air mask and puts it on Aaliyah.
Ten minutes and 12 seconds after the call, Marcus and Aaliyah are safely out of the house and in an ambulance on the way to the hospital where they are treated for smoke inhalation. Their parents had reached safety, also.
Two days later, at Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Station 832, Marcus, Aaliyah, and their family meet the firefighters and 9-1-1 dispatchers who came to their rescue.
Ritter praised Marcus for his wonderful job, particularly in calming his little sister. Marcus, however, was notably uneasy about the media limelight.
“He was very shy and humble,” Ritter said. “He said he was only doing what he thought was the right thing.”
The same goes for Ritter and Dashnaw.
Dashnaw, a fire dispatcher for two years and, also, a volunteer firefighter, said the attention has taken him by surprise.
“I couldn’t believe how fast this call was all over the place,” he said. “I don’t do it for the attention. It’s fun to make a difference when helping people and [in this call] everything went perfectly. Everyone’s relieved the kids got out safely.”
Like Dashnaw, Ritter finds the work rewarding.
“I couldn’t see myself working anywhere else,” said Ritter, who started with Prince George’s County communications five years ago. “Not much compares to what we have the opportunity to do.”