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Together, 9-1-1 dispatchers at South Metro Fire Rescue's dispatch center in Centennial answer an average of 150 emergency calls a day during their 24-hour-long shifts.
They take fire and medical calls from throughout at 1,700-square-mile coverage area, but on a windy and sunny afternoon in mid-April, none of the eight staff members on duty seemed stressed.
Their three- to four-month-long training programs have prepared them to handle whatever comes their way, said the dispatch supervisor, Nathan Keller. Training is detailed to the point it tells them what inflection to use in their voice when on calls.
Every day the dispatchers sit at their desks with 12 computer screens before them, each monitor serving a different purpose, waiting for phones to ring.
On April 12 at approximately 1:30 p.m. Kyler Hewes, 26, of Pueblo sat speaking into a headset and briskly typing notes into his computer.
Hewes was almost eight hours into his 24-hour shift, wrapping up a 9-1-1 call concerning a teenage girl suffering a seizure. He stayed on the line with the caller until he was certain paramedics reached the girl, then hung up.
Hewes is approaching his sixth year as a dispatcher. Every day is different, and that's why he likes the job, he said.
Minutes later Hewes took another call. The person on the other end got right to the point — a Greenwood Village office received a package in the mail. When employees opened it, white powder burst into the air. The employees soon complained about burning throats and eyes, prompting the 9-1-1 call.
One person thought the powder smelled chemical. It was unclear how many people had been exposed, but it was several.
“We have no idea what it is,” a woman at the office told Hewes over the phone.
He nailed down their address and alerted his supervisor, Keller, of the situation. Keller was ready with instructions for Hewes.
“If we can, isolate them,” he says. “Isolate the patients.”
Without knowing what the substance is, their goal was to keep it contained and prevent further spread or contamination before hazmat crews arrived.
Meanwhile, Eric Hurst, a public information officer with South Metro Fire Rescue, left to handle communications on scene. In less than an hour the South Metro Fire Rescue Twitter account announced the agency was investigating a hazardous material at the Quebec Street office building.
Hewes ended the call as crews arrived on scene, although radio chatter kept dispatchers updated.
When the call first came through, Hewes didn't flinch. He stayed calm, followed his protocols and asked numerous questions so he could paint a picture of the situation for first responders.
Once he did hang up the phone, however, he looked to Keller, eyes big in disbelief. What could the white powder be?
“Anything,” Hewes said. “It could be anything.”
Anthrax, which of course came to mind, was merely one possibility, he said.
As the Greenwood Village situation continued to unfold, Hewes had plenty more work to do. Not much later, multiple people called to report a dog attack. On the phone, Hewes could hear a man yelling in the background. He concluded the attack might still be in progress, but whoever was on the line had set their phone down and wasn't responsive.
He repeatedly asked if the man could hear him. With no luck, he resorted to hanging up and redialed the number twice, still getting no response.
Meanwhile his colleague, dispatcher Lisa Aden, 40, of Aurora, took a call from another person reporting the attack. Between Aden and Hewes, they were able to get first responders on their way.
In little more than 30 minutes, Hewes had taken calls about a seizure, a suspicious white powder and an animal attack.
Then came the call of man who fell off a ladder, a woman who fell in the shower and next an elderly man whose wife was losing oxygen.
“You guys are great,” the man told Hewes as he heard firefighters walking down the hall to their apartment door. “Absolutely sensational.”
At 3:14 p.m. South Metro's Twitter account tweeted an update to its last, which was retweeted by local media and reporters. The white powder in Greenwood Village was identified as potassium perchlorate, commonly found in fireworks, and would be disposed of by officials.
There was no threat to the community, no criminal action suspected, and, only one person transported to the hospital as a precaution.
“I hate the days when we make news,” Aden said.
In Keller's words, people who call them are often experiencing the worst moments in their lives. No news is good news to dispatchers.
Jokingly, they refuse to use the word “quiet.” Anytime they describe the office as that, things get hectic, dispatchers said.
As the white powder debacle died down, a new emergency simultaneously flared up. Reports of a grass fire near Chatfield State Park filtered in, and within seconds, four dispatchers all jumped on incoming calls.
Immediately the same two lines echoed across the room:
“South Metro Fire, what's the address of the emergency?” they said. “Tell me exactly what happened.”
And with that, the dispatchers were back to work.
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