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

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2015-04-19
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Part 2: Oklahoma City Fire

by Terry Fonzi

Originally published in our Sep/Oct 1995 issue

On April 19, 1995, at 9:02 AM, Oklahoma City had an incident that we will never forget.  The Communications Center of the Oklahoma City Fire Department  became the main focus of attention for an incident of unbelievable proportions.

OCFD’s Communications Center is a secondary 9-1-1 answering point for Oklahoma City.   The primary 9-1-1 PSAP is located six miles away at the police department.  If the caller needs the fire department, they are transferred to our facility.  We also receive emergency calls directly on our seven-digit emergency number.

Our Communications Center is staffed by uniformed fire department personnel working one of  three 24-hour shifts.  Five personnel are assigned to each shift: one shift supervisor, an assistant shift supervisor, and three firefighters.  At the time of the incident, there were only a total of three assigned personnel to the shift, supplemented by two light duty personnel.

Oklahoma City Fire Department provides fire, rescue and EMS service to an area of  637 square miles, covering five counties.  There are 33 fire stations with approximately 77 pieces of equipment.  The Communications Center is furnished with three identical radio/telephone positions, each one equipped with an E9-1-1 phone line, seven digit emergency line, and direct lines to each fire station.  We are connected to the same OCS CAD system as the police department, with an MDT as a back-up in case our CAD connection goes down.

All positions have radio and fire station audio capability.   We have five radio channels to select from, including our primary dispatch channel and  a separate station audio for ringdowns that broadcasts dispatches to the selected fire houses.  Companies in the field use 16 channel radios but not all of those channels are available to the Communications Center - many are tactical or mutual aid frequencies. 

The April 19 shift began like any normal shift.   The daily station audio and radio tests were done.   We received a few EMS calls and dispatched companies for first-aid.  Everything changed at 9:02 AM.  Our office is located six blocks west of the incident.  Almost immediately, all the phones were ringing.  Approximately 98% of the phone calls we were receiving were from automatic alarm companies.  The explosion set off alarms as far away as 16 miles.

Fire Station 1 advised they were on their way even before we dispatched them.  The Fire Chief was the first to notify us of the situation - he had been only three blocks away in his department automobile.    The radio soon came alive with transmissions.  Our office became the focus of attention, not only for incident operations but also for information as to what had happened.   Initially we could only give callers a brief explanation, because we were still trying to get more information ourselves.

From the very start of the incident, the radio was the primary contact between the scene and any requests that were needed.  We monitored the radio to make sure that all communications between each company were received and that the Incident Commander knew who was responding.  We dedicated one console to do nothing but monitor the Murrah incident.

Our initial response to this incident, not knowing exactly what had occurred, was four engines, two trucks, one squad and a District Chief.  Once that had been dispatched and the Fire Chief arrived on scene, additional equipment was sent.   We first dispatched all available squads.  While that was going on, other companies were self-dispatching to the incident.  At first that caused a problem for us, but we finally got a handle on it and were able to figure out who was at the incident.

Surrounding cities were quick to offer their assistance.  We asked them to relocate to some of our fire stations depleted by the incident, in order to maintain coverage for Oklahoma City.  They were more than willing to assist in any way they could.  The incident had escalated beyond our belief.  We knew that this was going to be a long-term incident, and not only for us but for the fire department as a whole.   Communications were going to be the most important part and we had to make sure that it would go smoothly.   We not only had the incident to worry about, we also had over six hundred miles to cover.  We had to make sure the rest of the citizens of Oklahoma City were able to have their emergencies answered.  Our job was just beginning.

With an incident of this magnitude, some of the off duty personnel were called back to duty.  I had just gotten off at 7 AM  that morning and by 9:35 AM I was back to work.  At 10:00 AM I took control of the incident.  The shift that was on duty was exhausted by this time, simply because of the amount of phone calls and radio traffic.  Things were beginning to get under control.  All of the on-duty dispatchers were glad for a little break.

The way we handled the incident was to have one position allocated to the incident and dispatching equipment to other emergency calls.  The other positions were answering phones and entering any emergency calls.  

Once the incident was under control, our Communications Center became the point of contact between the Command Post and the incident.  For approximately two weeks after the initial incident, the Command Post would advise us as to how many OCFD personnel would be needed and at what time.  We would have to check the manpower of each company every morning to make sure they had enough personnel.  We also had to maintain coverage for the city when we selected the companies that would respond to the Murrah Building. 

The Command Post was very pleased with the amount of effort that we had given to the incident.  We made sure that every request for manpower was filled, and maintained communications with the CP about the status of each resource assignment.    We received numerous calls from people volunteering to help.  All we could do at the time was take their name and number and forward it to the Fire Chief, and he would make the decision.  Once FEMA got involved it became a group command system, involving fire, police, FEMA, FBI, ATF, although the Fire Chief maintained control of the incident.  Our Communications Center didn’t get involved with calling in Search And Rescue strike teams; that was done at the command post by FEMA. 

Most people do not understand that when an incident of this size happens, we still have to make sure that the other citizens of Oklahoma City have emergency personnel available to respond.  We were not able to devote our full attention just to the Murrah Building incident, as we had to do the best with what we had left at the time.  Mutual aid companies were very helpful.  Keeping our minds off the incident was difficult, but our attention had to be on other responsibilities also.

There is no way to have a plan for this type of an incident.  You can practice and practice, but until you have been there, you can never really be ready.  Oklahoma City participated in an emergency management class at the National Fire Academy in July, 1994.  That helped prepare us for April 19th.  But the incident will always be on our minds.  If we can survive this, what else is there?  When you have practice disaster drills, everything goes smoothly.  Many other departments have disaster plans in effect.  They are probably good plans, but until it actually happens, you won’t know if you’ve thought of everything or not.  You can be trained on every aspect of the job, but no one can be trained for what happened in Oklahoma City on April 19th.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the other Communication Centers throughout  the world for the praise, good wishes, prayers, and everything else that was went to us.  It raised our spirits, which is exactly what we needed at the time. 

In 1995 Terry Fonzi was a Captain with the Oklahoma City Fire Department and was one of the shift supervisors in the Communications Center during the bombing of the Murrah Building.  The day of the incident was also his birthday... one he’ll never forget.

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