How dispatchers handle calls for help, like those from night of wildfires

(WATE)

GATLINBURG (WATE) – People in Gatlinburg experienced chaos, urgency, and fear, as a firestorm spread through Sevier County.

The picture, painted by dashcam videos, radio traffic, and 911 calls released Wednesday, shows what dispatchers were up against that terrifying day.

“The whole mountain is on fire up here,” you can hear one caller say. “We’re trying to make our way down, but I think we’re all going to burn up quick. Can you do something?”

Previous storyThousands of Gatlinburg, Sevier County wildfire 911 recordings, documents released

At the center of it, a small number of 911 operators and police dispatchers, handling calls coming in every few seconds, from people desperate for answers.

“It can get tough,” Tonya Cum, technology coordinator for Knoxville E-911 Center, said. “Many times when it’s an extremely bad call, when the call is over, our call processors and dispatchers will step out and take a few minutes to gain their own composure.”

Dispatchers from Gatlinburg and Sevier County tried to calm distressed callers, many of whom were running for their lives to escape the flames.

This is one of the calls:

Dispatcher: Alright, um. We’re trying to get people to you.
Caller: The whole mountain, all of Wiley Oakley is on fire.
Dispatcher: Yes ma’am.
Caller: Y’all need to do something quick, quick, quick.
Dispatcher: We’re trying everything we can.
Caller: Well we’re trying to get down but you’ve got us like a little caravan of four cars.
Dispatcher: Four cars.
Caller: And we’re all going to… if the cars get… and we can’t see anything either. And we’re trying to edge our way down but we can’t see.
Dispatcher: I’m sorry. I’ve got people headed up there. Hold on for me. Okay?
Caller: Oh, please help us! We can’t see the road or anything. Oh my God.

Some dispatchers can be heard telling people to leave their homes, while others advised callers to use their judgment about whether they can evacuate safely.

Back in Knox County, Cum says employees are trained with specific guidelines.

“We have a call handling guide that is approved by all of our user agencies as to how they want emergencies handled,” Cum said.

It includes specific questions to ask and what to tell callers about staying safe.

“It’s so that everyone’s on the same page no matter what 911 center you may get or what call processor you may get, that you get the best response possible for your emergency,” Cum said.

Sevier County has six operators working the phones at the 911 Center on the night of the wildfires, plus four more people helping them.

They were so overloaded with calls, that many of them had to be transferred to other agencies, like Sevierville police.

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