Unsung Heroes: Dispatchers describe how they handled Sunday’s tornado and the aftermath

Published 9:00 am Saturday, April 1, 2023

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When Sunday’s EF-3 tornado touched down near West Point Road, phones at Troup County’s 911 office started ringing off the hook.

Shannan McLaughlin, E-911 director, said the first call came in at 6:43 a.m. from a man who reported a tornado had gone through his house and destroyed it.

“That was the first time that we knew that a tornado hit the ground. As soon as that first call came in, they all started rolling in. It was a constant nonstop from then on. All we could do is pray and try to get people out there at that time,” McLaughlin said.

The 911 center typically receives 480-520 calls a day, but on Sunday and Monday 1,770 calls came in.

As the call volume increased, Melody Swanson, deputy director, braced dark roads littered with debris, fallen trees and flooding to get to the office and help.

“Once I got in here, everybody was at their station doing what had to do. When we have a weather situation like that, everybody is calling and our screens get very crowded with a lot of calls,” Swanson said.

In preparation for major storms coming in, McLaughlin said they typically put the 911 team on a weather alert.

“When that happens, we will have a group text and put it out there we need at least three as soon as possible — as soon as it’s safe for them to come here,” McLaughlin said. “Our team was coming in because it takes all hands on deck. We had Melody’s office open, we had my office open, we had an extra person sitting working at the stand-alone desk. It was chaotic.”

Amy Mains, the shift supervisor on Sunday, said working that day was hectic.

“It was hectic, but I couldn’t have done my job as a supervisor without having everyone else in this room and trusting them to do the job that they know how to do,” Mains said. “… I was emotionally exhausted but satisfied knowing that we did the great job we did and provided the help that we could provide from this side and being there for the community.”

Sheenna Mealer said the day the tornado hit brought a mixture of feelings.

“When you choose to work in a field like this, your immediate response cannot be panic — it has to be action,” Mealer said. “All I could think about was trying to get help to every single person as quickly as we could.”

McLaughlin said the call volume probably would have been higher if cell towers weren’t down.

“Being here at 911, one of the main things we do is look at the weather, traffic —everything.  Even though we were here that morning, we knew bad weather was coming later that night,” Swanson said. “Our team knows exactly what they were doing and know what to do. We like to be here to give them a helping hand, so they won’t feel like they have to carry the weight of the job on their own. We’re a team here and have each other’s backs.”

As unsung heroes, 911 dispatchers often do not get recognition for the important job they do.

“It’s sad, but we’re the last ones people think about — the last ones people think to even check on, but we’re the first ones to get that call. Even though we’re not on the scene, we don’t see it, we’re the first ones helping,” Swanson said.

“We hear their cries. We hear the mother screaming, the baby’s not breathing — death, we hear it all,” McLaughlin said. “Nobody reaches out to us. We have to reach out to our chaplains, we have to reach out to get help for our employees. Everybody assumes that 911 is fine.”

While being the invisible heroes, McLaughlin and Swanson said it’s a calling and one they are proud to do.

“I would do this any day of the week, anywhere, wherever. This is what I love to do, this is my passion. To be that person who can pick up a phone call and calm that mother down, to make sure she’s OK, to make sure her children are OK, to make sure her family or whoever it is OK and get the help they need is the best feeling in the world,” Swanson said.

McLaughlin said the 911 team depends on and supports each other, especially when getting calls that didn’t go well or needing someone to talk to after taking a heavy phone call.

“We may get a major call, have a death, or CPR turned out bad, and we might not want to talk about it that day. We help each other and talk it out because at some point we’ve gone through it and that support is golden,” McLaughlin said. “There is nowhere else I’d rather be, and I’m proud of the work I do.”