The frantic calls came like flying embers. One after another after another, Sonoma County people dialed 911 in mortal fear and begged for help. The emergency dispatchers fielding the calls had never before experienced such a storm of desperate pleas.
As the initially calm Sunday night of Oct. 8, 2017, gave way to the hellish morning of Oct. 9, wind-enraged wildfires roared into the county from the northeast. The flames killed and destroyed, and they ignited the phone bank at the fire-and-ambulance dispatch center within the Sonoma County Sheriff’s headquarters in north Santa Rosa.
“It’s all a blur,” KT McNulty, 37, said months afterward. When the Tubbs, Nuns and Pocket fires struck, she was on-duty as a supervisor of the center run by Redcom, the Redwood Empire Dispatch Communications Authority.
Poring over maps and thinking on their feet, Cloverdale High School Class of 2001 grad McNulty and her quickly enlarged crew of dispatchers did all they could to focus, calm, interrogate and advise callers trapped or frozen in place as the wildfires bore down.
McNulty recalls, “There were multiple people I told to get in a pool.”
She and the other inundated Redcom dispatchers had to tell callers they could not promise that help was coming, as the infernos had police and fire resources stretched beyond the limit.
With no printed protocols for assisting a civilian population besieged by a historic conflagration, the dispatchers extemporaneously quizzed the callers as to their locations and situations, and advised them to escape or to locate shelter.
“It was basically grasping at straws to find a way out,” McNulty said.
She and her fellow Redcom dispatchers asked callers:
Are they close to a clearing unlikely to burn, either because there’s little vegetation there or because or the flames have already swept through?
Might they have access to a pond or other body of water?
If they’re on a rural property and their escape is blocked, might they flee through a neighbor’s gate?
If trees or branches have fallen across a road, can they get their hands on a chainsaw?
Failing all other options, might they dig and lie down in a ditch?
Earlier this year, Redcom’s McNulty was singled out—in a big way—for all she did that night to counsel those who dialed 911 with their lives on the line.
The International Academies of Emergency Dispatch named her its Dispatcher of the Year. The Utah-based trade organization establishes and distributes procedures and protocols for dispatchers who handle calls for fire and medical emergencies.
McNulty was nominated for the honor by Aaron Abbott, director of Redcom.
He said that several times during the 2017 disaster, “KT gave life-saving instructions to citizens in situations that were so unique that no emergency fire dispatch protocols existed for them.”
Abbott added, “Many of KT’s ad-hoc instructions were repeated throughout the dispatch center during those chaotic hours, saving countless lives in the process.”
As a teenager and young adult, McNulty aspired to be a firefighter. But upon noticing in 2002 that dispatchers were being hired for Redcom, operated by the ambulance company American Medical Response through a joint powers agreement, she applied.