November 26, 2012
By Billy Jo Baneck
My name is Billi Jo Baneck, and I’m a 9-1-1 dispatcher—a person trained to help the public when life-changing events are happening to them.
But on Dec. 5, 2008, the most tragic, lifechanging event happened in my life.
I was in Appleton, Wis., attending a weeklong training for new dispatchers learning how to calm callers experiencing the worst day of their lives while still gathering the information necessary both for appropriate response and scene safety for arriving police, fire, and medical crews.
At 2 a.m., while in my hotel room sleeping, the phone rang. At that hour, I ignored the call. The phone rang again so I answered. A family friend told me there had been a fire at my parents’ house and she was on her way to the hospital to be with my younger brother and sister. I asked a million questions while trying to get dressed and hurry out the door, but our friend wasn’t answering many of them. I was told they had been taken to Berlin Memorial Hospital, which was about an hour drive from where I was.
When I arrived, my sister Katie was being put into a helicopter for transport to Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. She had been intubated and her burns had been bandaged. I pushed away her singed hair, kissed her forehead, and told her I loved her and would see her soon. My brother Tony, 22, was in the emergency room; his hands were blistered and cut. My mom’s friend offered to shut the door, but I said “no.” I was waiting for the nurses to tell me where the rest of my family had been taken.
In the next moment, the world stopped moving.
My mom’s friend told me that my mother, a dispatcher for Waushara County Sheriff’s Department, Wis.; my father, a self-employed truck driver and farmer; and my 16-year-old brother Charlie, a high school student, did not make it out of the burning house.
I’m told my scream was ear piercing.
Then something else took over. I kicked into what I can only describe as “mom mode.” I went into the room where family members were gathering, recruited volunteers to be with Katie at Children’s Hospital until I could get there, spoke with the sheriff about what had happened (suspected wood stove malfunction), made a few phone calls, and thanked the officers from Waushara and Green Lake Counties for their support. I took my brother Tony to my home once he was released from the hospital.
The first people knocking on my door were American Red Cross volunteers. I asked, “What can I do for you?” The volunteers replied, “We are here to help you. May we come in?”
For the next hour the volunteer told me how the American Red Cross was going to help my family. They would provide financial assistance to buy clothes for Tony and Katie, food, payment for medications, and gas to travel to visit Katie. I didn’t need the gas money for long. A couple that owned a home around the corner from the hospital allowed us to stay there while Katie recovered. My first visit finally gave my sister Nellie a break from the ICU. I lay next to Katie all night just listening to her breathing.
Katie spent the first week in the ICU. They did emergency skin grafts to cover exposed veins on her wrists and later, more skin grafts to repair the burns on her hands and arms. Since Katie was legally considered an orphan, I was granted temporary guardianship to make decisions regarding her healthcare.
Katie came “home” the day prior to the funeral. The three of us were living in Wautoma so that they could attend the same schools. Everything was new—clothing, furniture, and the size of their family.
The funeral was held in the high school gymnasium to hold everyone we knew would attend. Local Amish, who had worked with my dad, brought in desserts; local restaurants donated lunch; pictures lined the halls from the entry to the caskets; and quilts that my mom had made were hung on the walls. The line for the viewing looped around the halls and backed up outside the front door. People stood out in the snow waiting to pay their respects. Officers from across the state lined the streets from the school to the cemetery. At the cemetery a final call was put out over the officers’ radios honoring my mom for her work and dedication to 9-1-1. A sheriff’s department guard, one of two standing at attention by the caskets, later told me that my mom was his favorite dispatcher and his reason for being the officer that he is today.
In the weeks following the funeral the community continued to amaze me. Farmers donated time and equipment to harvest my dad’s crops off the fields. They held an auction of my dad’s farm equipment. The farm bureau organized a benefit to create a college fund for Katie. The kids at Charlie and Katie’s school sold T-shirts to raise money for our family.
My home life was turned upside down. I worked the night shift but as soon as I got home I had to make breakfast for Katie, change her bandages, comb her hair, do her makeup, and help her dress. When Katie and I finalized the guardianship papers, she threw her arms around me and announced, “It’s a girl!”
A few months after the fire, Vicki Jenks of the American Red Cross asked me to be the guest speaker for a Heroes fundraising event. I was honored. With all of the generosity at the time of our emergency, I had wanted to do anything I could to give back and told Vicki of my interest to do more for the community. She introduced me to the Disaster Action Team. Since then I have assisted victims of natural disasters. I promote the Red Cross in TV interviews, work behind the scenes to set up for Red Cross events, and have been a guest speaker at the Red Cross awards ceremony. I have also hosted my own fundraising events with the proceeds benefiting the Red Cross.
People ask me all the time how I got through such a tragedy. Honestly, I don’t have an answer for how, except in the healing that comes from helping others. As a dispatcher I’ve always known in my heart that what I do is helping someone, whether they remember you for that or not.
In June 2011, I left Green Lake County and started as a dispatcher for Brown County, which allows me to teach the importance of 9-1-1 to kids attending local public schools. I challenge others to reach out as a volunteer at a homeless shelter, talk to a child victim of abuse, or sit down with a person who needs someone to listen. Whether you volunteer with a non-profit or donate clothing to Goodwill, something that might only take five minutes out of your day could make a profound impact on another person’s life. Believe me, you can make a difference and it doesn’t have to take a personal tragedy to begin.