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20 Years Later: Remembering Oklahoma City - The Communications Center Impact: EMS

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2015-04-19
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Part 3: Oklahoma City EMS

Paul Holman

Originally published in our Sept/Oct 1995 issue

Every medic, dispatcher, firefighter, and law enforcer has the incident of his or her career: the one incident that instills pride, fear, or compassion to continue the chosen profession.  Mine had been a vehicle accident with fatalities, but also lives saved through professional actions by all agencies that responded.  That incident so many years ago was replaced on April 19, i995.

This morning had started for EMSA/AMR headquarters with anxiety.  An arson fire had been set in a storage garage of our building the previous evening.  Two days earlier a burglary had been reported in the building.  A comment had been made: "What's next, a bomb?"  Our building is five blocks from ground zero.  When the blast occurred I thought, "My God, they did it!  They have blown up our building!"  It only took a few seconds to realize that our building was not the blast sight.  The blast area was located from the smoke before any call was received through 9-1-1.

Within 30 seconds of the blast I grabbed my headset and entered the communications center.  There were three SSCs ( System Status Controllers) on duty with one having called out sick for the day.  Jim Taylor is the disaster plan coordinator for the communications center and was on duty.  He immediately took a side channel for all units assigned to the site. Carey Terrell was on the radio position.  She started sending units into the area even though we still did not have any calls from 9-1-1. Trinidad Came was primary call taker on the telephones.  Our first call was received at 9:05 AM.  From that point the phones did not stop until 10:30.  Most calls came in from a 2-3 block radius from the Murrah Building.  At this point we still had no idea what had caused the explosion.

As management staff arrived in the center, we started transferring the non- emergency calls to them.  Between calls I sent out a page for all off duty SSC’s to report to the communications center immediately due to a mass casualty incident.  Most of the off duty personnel had heard or felt the explosion and were already on their way in to the city.  Within 30 minutes two additional SSC's were at consoles; within an hour all of them were either in the communications center or in the field.

By this time the television helicopters were broadcasting pictures of the building.  When we saw them it was like the phones stopped ringing.  That is when the first shock hit me.  I know the phones were ringing and everyone was talking but I didn’t hear anything for a few seconds.  Bill Kruse, CEO of AMR-Oklahoma, came into the center and asked where the blast was, All I could do was point to the television screen.  At about 45 minutes after the explosion, I went to the scene to coordinate communications with other agencies.  I wound up in an ambulance, transporting five patients to a hospital.  Just as I returned to the scene the first bomb scare occurred and the immediate area of the building was evacuated.  Rescuers first established control of the overall scene about the same time.  Most of the patients had been transported to hospitals.  Triage, treatment, and transportation areas were reestablished, a field hospital was set up by the Emergency Medical Response Team from Tulsa.  Anxiety gave way to despair when only three patients arrived during the next seven hours.  The last victim was removed alive from the building at approximately 10 PM.

Statistics from April 19 and the following three weeks of body recovery revealed the impact on our system and personnel.  Our communications center normally processes an average of 400 calls per day.  On the 19th we answered 1036 calls.  Surprisingly, our service area did not suffer from the initial response.  Mutual aid was provided by surrounding services almost without asking.  From 9 AM to noon we received only seven calls for emergency response not related to the explosion.  During the body recovery phase the SSC's not only staffed the communication center but also worked extra on street units and those dedicated to the Medical Director at the Murrah Building.  One SSC volunteered 10 straight shifts for duty in the temporary morgue.

Initial emotions expressed by the SSC's on the 19th ranged from shock to anger to disbelief.  Sick outs and tardiest increased in the two weeks following the blast.  One SSC walked off the job due to emotional stress.  We all found the necessity to temper our thoughts and actions toward co-workers.  Receiving emergency calls for simple problems like "a headache" would at first bring a feeling of pettiness.  All of the personnel have been offered CISD, with most participating.  Initial counseling was set up on the 19th.  AMR sent a stress debriefing team to Oklahoma City the following week.  Follow-up debriefing and stress management sessions were mandatory four weeks after the blast.  Civic organizations and church groups have organized functions for emergency service personnel as a method of expressing their thanks.  I tried to allow each SSC to participate in these functions if they wanted.  Each day brings us closer to "business as usual;" although the event will never go away in our hearts and minds.

As Communications Supervisor, the blast brought several shortcomings in the emergency communications area to the forefront.  As a third service contractor, EMSA has no direct radio communications with fire or police other than telephone.  Immediately following the blast we lost telephone communications due to the volume of traffic.  Cellular service was lost for almost 30 minutes.  At the scene we had to use runners to locate fire command and set up a liaison for communications using fire department radios.  A direct telephone line with fire dispatch and the 9-1-1 center, and a common radio frequency, would improve interagency communications.  The same problem exists for mutual aid units that responded into the system.  The only method of communication was by runner.  There were 66 mutual aid units that responded from around the state.  Tracking these units for patient follow-up took over six days.

Within 10 minutes of the blast the EMSA communications center was receiving calls from news agencies and networks from around the world.  We had neither the time nor the information to give them.  I hung up on CNN twice.  The need for a Public Information Officer who could devote full time to fielding these calls would have helped the SSC's better perform their primary duties.

Every person in the country was stunned by the events on April 19.  The emergency agencies in Oklahoma City have earned a new respect from the public.  Cards, posters, cookies, and other random acts of kindness have flooded every fire station, police station and EMSA location.  The return to normalcy is getting closer.  Will life as we knew it ever return?  Probably not.  The predominant attitude at EMSA is that we must go on and progress with the knowledge gained to improve what we have.

Paul Holman was the Communications Supervisor for EMSA/American Medical Response, Oklahoma City’s paramedic provider, in 1995.

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