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

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2015-04-19
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Part 1: Oklahoma City Police

by Tony Harrison 

Originally published in our Sep/Oct 1995 issue

April 19, 1995 is a day that will live in our memories forever.     It is a day much like the assassination of President Kennedy, you will never forget what you were doing or where you were when you heard the news.  I was in a meeting with another supervisor and our 9-1-1 coordinator, a police lieutenant).  At 9:02 AM a dispatcher paged on our in-house phone system for a supervisor to come to the operations floor.  Immediately I left the meeting and walked the few feet to the operations floor where I was told that there had been an explosion downtown.

The 12 dispatchers on duty in the police communications unit were already receiving the initial reports of the bombing.  Five dispatchers were assigned to the Radio room; a sixth was relieving the “Will Rogers” dispatcher - the patrol division in which the federal building is located.  Five dispatchers remained in the phone room, answering incoming 9-1-1 calls as well as those coming in on the police department’s seven digit emergency number.  Dispatchers normally spend two hours on the radio followed by two hours on the phones; 9:00 AM is when the first rotation occurs.

Within seconds of the blast we began to realize the magnitude of the event.  Officers in the downtown area made immediate radio reports advising of an explosion.  Officers were on scene within one minute and identified the federal building as ground zero.  Four officers were inside the federal courthouse at the time of the blast and also made radio calls for assistance.  Inside the 9-1-1 center, call volume quickly us an immediate indication of the force of the blast.   Calls came in from all over the city reporting an explosion.  The blast was heard and felt as far away as 15 miles from downtown.

Also located in the Police communications unit is the Emergency Operations Center for the City.  The EOC, under the command of the shift supervisor on duty, immediately began the process of notifying various city departments of the disaster.  At the time of the incident, two dispatchers were in the EOC.

In the first 30 minutes of the incident the Police communications unit answered 338 calls.  83 9-1-1 calls were abandoned.  The average speed of answer was 42.6 seconds with a maximum delay, on one call only,  being 546 seconds.  Due  to  the  extreme  work  load  of  the dispatchers,  call  backs  on abandoned 9-1-1 calls  could  not  be  made immediately.  During the minutes that followed the blast, numerous requests were made for specialty units to respond to the scene.  The Police Department’s Emergency Response Team had been activated within minutes of the explosion.  The ERT is made up of 60 officers and supervisors specially trained to respond to civil disturbances and disasters.  All bomb technicians and all K-9 units were also dispatched to the scene.  Attempting to notify these specialty units is normally done by the supervisor activating their pagers.  During the early minutes of the incident it was extremely difficult to page anyone in the city.  Telephone circuits throughout Oklahoma City were overwhelmed by the incident and could not handle the initial load.  To set off pagers, we had to make repeated attempts to call them until an open circuit was found.  Despite the difficulty, the entire ERT was assembled and on scene within one hour.

Within minutes of the incident, calls from off-duty dispatchers began to poor in.  Dispatchers called so quickly after the incident I told one dispatcher to call back in a little bit because I had yet to realize the magnitude of the event.  Shortly after that, those dispatchers who called in were told to report to work immediately.  Some dispatchers didn’t even take the time to call in - they just reported for duty.  Within one hour the unit was fully staffed with approximately 30 people on the operations floor and no vacant positions in the center or the EOC.

Some dispatchers reported to the unit within 15 minutes of the blast.  From 9:30 to 10:00, 150 calls were answered and only one call was abandoned.  The average speed of answer was 2.0 seconds and the maximum delay was 27 seconds.  With additional staffing now available, special assignments were given to dispatchers.  Two dispatchers were assigned to call back every abandoned 9-1-1 call, paying particular attention to those in the downtown area.  One dispatcher was assigned to keep an open line with the Police command post which had arrived at the scene within 15 minutes of the blast.

That open line was established within 30 minutes of the incident.  The line was kept open in order to maintain a cellular lock in the downtown town area after the incident.  The open line also provided supervisors in the communications unit a direct and immediate link to police command at the scene of the incident.  Prior to the cellular link being established, the communications supervisors were able to communicate with the command post via Mobile Data Terminals in the command post, using the CAD system.

Within an hour of the incident the unit began to receive calls from citizens and businesses offering assistance.  One dispatcher was assigned to catalog all these offers.  These calls came in on every phone line in the building, and from all over the state and, eventually, all over the country.  The receptionist and payroll clerk were required to answer hundreds of calls on the unit’s administrative lines.

The two dispatchers who were at the Will Rogers radio position at the time of the incident stayed on the radio until relieved by second shift dispatchers at 3:00 PM. After the bombing, officers from all police divisions rushed to the scene.  Within 3 hours of the incident, 345 Oklahoma City Police employees were on scene, including numerous civilian personnel.  This does not include the approximately three hundred county, state, federal and other local police authorities who also responded to the scene.

As the day progressed in the communications center, staffing of the unit for the remainder of the day and those to follow was addressed by Supervisors from all three shifts.  It was decided that communications employees should work no more than 12 hours.  Employees who needed to go home at the end of their 8 hour shift were allowed to go home.  All employees were allowed to continue with their scheduled days off.

As the day came to an end for those of us working at the time of the blast, it was time to go home and confront the feelings that we had suppressed during the day in order to perform our duties.  I went home and cried, tried to sleep a few hours and got up and went back to work and began day two of the incident.  The Communications personnel of Oklahoma City have been able to make it through this incident with the constant support of our co-workers from around the world, and by the grace of God.  We owe all of you a big thank you.

Tony Harrison was the 9-1-1 shift supervisor and former training coordinator for the Oklahoma City Police Department Communications unit on April 19, 1995.    Tony is now a nationally-known public safety dispatch trainer (see http://www.publicsafetygroup.com/)

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