February 26, 2013
By Audrey Fraizer
Bouquets of flowers, chocolate-covered fruit, care packages with personal messages attached, and hundreds upon hundreds of e-mails and cards flooded the Newtown (Conn.) Emergency Care Center (N.E.C.C.) on the day of and several days after a lone gunman repeatedly shot and killed 20 students and six faculty members at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.
“Every good dispatcher knows what a dispatcher needs at a time like this,” said N.E.C.C. Director Maureen Will. “It’s comfort food; it’s messages of hope; it’s whatever they would like if the same thing happened at their center.”
Two dispatchers and Will were on duty at the N.E.C.C. on Friday morning, Dec. 14, 2012, when the first call came in at 9:35 a.m. indicating someone shooting a gun inside the elementary school. According to local news stories, the caller reported hearing gunfire, and said she believed the gunman was still inside the building. The rapid-fire shooting was heard coming from the school over a period of about 11 minutes. By 10 a.m., first responders were beginning to discover the extent of carnage.
While Will could not speak directly on the incident or response because of ongoing investigations, she did acknowledge the tremendous outpouring of support and compassion that pulls hard on her emotions and those of her dispatchers.
“I am so proud of being part of the telecommunications community,” Will said less than a week after the tragedy. “Centers from all over this country and Canada came together to show us their love and support. It’s been phenomenal.”
Will, who has 35 years public service, stayed throughout the long morning extending late into the day, answering calls alongside her dispatchers, constantly monitoring her crew for signs of stress. The Connecticut State Patrol had three dispatchers and a trooper working during the shooting.
A N.E.C.C. dispatcher on duty during the distressing incident returned to work five days later anticipating—and answering—a large volume of calls that had since progressed to the stage of grief and mourning.
“The funerals are now starting, and it’s difficult,” Will said. “My dispatchers have been incredible. They are doing very well, but I’m keeping my eye on them. I take care of my people. We take care of each other.”
Will printed each and every e-mail, coming in by the hundreds, and placed them on the consoles to read when the dispatchers have a chance to look through the notes of compassion and gratitude.
“I will respond to everyone when I can,” she wrote in a message posted on the 911 Cares activation site. “The tears do come but we are standing tall and proud knowing that we did our best.”
The profession’s universal caretaker—911 Cares—responded immediately on the morning of the shooting, arranging for a local pizza parlor to deliver three of their most popular pies and, as their way to help, the pizza parlor (Carminuccio’s Pizza) promised to make sure the dispatchers received pizza and salads throughout the day and night at no charge.
“This is the best analogy for 911 Cares,” 911 Cares Founder Kevin Willett wrote on the activation site. “People want to help or appreciate or honor or mourn. Dispatchers want to support their own.”
911 Cares also dedicated a Web page to news updates and addresses to send well wishes and activated a free and confidential critical stress e-mail for telecommunicators needing an “ear to listen or a shoulder to lean on.” The e-mails were directed to a team of 9-1-1 dispatchers trained in stress management.
Several other organizations also sent or posted messages of support.
On Monday, Dec. 17, the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) posted the following message on its website: “At NENA, our thoughts and prayers are with the Newtown, CT, families, first responders, and 9-1-1 call takers. We are moved by the many acts of heroism and selfless public service that occurred amid this terrible tragedy, and we are mindful of the profound responsibility that 9-1-1 professionals bear in such situations.”
That outpouring of support means a lot to the Newtown ECC staff.
“We feel the love from our community and know that this is going to help us through a long rocky road,” Will wrote in the message posted on the 911 Cares site. Then later over the phone she said, “We are eternally grateful to be part of a community that cares so much about one another and constantly looks out for one another.”
The Newtown ECC dispatches police, fire, and EMS for Newtown. The staff of 10, including Will, answered 7,068 emergency 9-1-1 calls in 2010. Two dispatchers are on duty at all times.