On April 20, 1999, six people were on duty in the
Jefferson County Communications Center, which had been moved to its new location
just two weeks earlier. Four dispatchers, one supervisor and one emergency
response specialist were staffing four radio and three telephone positions. The
center manages communications traffic for all county departments, five
law-enforcement agencies and 11 volunteer fire departments.
The first reports of the Columbine High School
shootings were received in the communications center at 11:19 a.m. At that time,
a citizen called 911 about an explosion in a field on the east side of Wadsworth
Boulevard between Ken Caryl and Chatfield avenues.
A dispatcher transmitted the information to Deputy
Paul Magor, who was patrolling in the area. Four minutes later, dispatch
received a report of an injury at Columbine High School.
At 11:25 a.m., a caller from inside the school’s
library phoned 911.
In the next 40 minutes, dispatch received 31
emergency calls from people inside and outside the school relating information
about the Columbine incident. The
information was often sketchy and conflicting.
Calls reported numerous gunmen in different locations throughout the
school with varying types of weapons. Dispatchers
had no time to verify the reports coming at them.
They disseminated all the information received back to the command post
and to the deputies on scene.
and Media Calls Begin
By 11:32 a.m., local media learned of trouble at
Columbine High School and began contacting dispatch for more information. Calls
from national and international media quickly followed, and, by midnight, the
center had taken 339 calls from news organizations worldwide.
Other jurisdictions were relaying reports of the
incident as well, and it was apparent that a major event was unfolding that
would require a countywide, multiagency response.
To help coordinate those efforts, Capt. Ray Fleer,
Lt. Dennis Potter and Lt. Jeff Shrader of the Sheriff’s Office arrived at the
communications center. While they coordinated communications and logistics with
the county, cooperating agencies and officers on site, the dispatchers continued
to take incoming calls.
On his way to the high school, Sheriff John P. Stone
called Commissioner Pat Holloway and informed her of the initial reports. She
relayed the information to County Administrator Ron Holliday, who hurried to the
communications center with staff from the county’s Public Information and
Emergency Management departments. They were later joined by Holloway and
Commissioner Rick Sheehan, and the five helped answer media calls and released
county resources as needed.
Given the worldwide interest in the story, the
communications center needed international calling capabilities. Communications
Director Randy Smith coordinated that process and ordered extra phone batteries
and supplies for people in the field.
Increased & Command Bus Dispatched
By 11:40 a.m., Dispatch Manager Barb Farland and
Supervisor Cindy Cline had been paged to join Supervisor Karen Vitgenos in
helping the staff field calls. Off-work dispatchers also heard of the incident
and volunteered to work. By early afternoon, two people were staffing each radio
and phone position, and the center had almost four times its normal staffing
level. A technician from the local phone company, U.S. West, arrived on his own
so he could help in case technical problems developed.
More and more officers were responding to Columbine
High School, and the Sheriff’s mobile command bus was sent to handle on-site
communications. The bus arrived by 12:39 p.m., and it carried a team of three
dispatchers with it.
Once the bus was on scene, it became the
communications center for the incident command post. As a mobile communications
unit, the bus is equipped with the same radio capabilities as the main center at
the Sheriff’s Office. The dispatchers in the bus handled communications among
the SWAT teams and other on-site personnel and with headquarters.
Load Peaks at 200 Times Normal Level
For the next three days, dispatchers were put on
mandatory 12-hour shifts. Other law enforcement agencies loaned their
dispatchers to assist with the crisis, and a victim advocate/peer counselor was
available to help dispatchers deal with the trauma.
For the next week, the stream of calls continued.
Hundreds of reporters and citizens phoned simply to get updates about the event.
At the peak of the crisis, the communications center handled almost 200 times
its normal call load for a weekday. On April 20 alone, the staff took:
31 calls on 911 from 11:19 a.m. to 12 p.m.
88 calls on 911 from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m.
114 calls on 911 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
During the busiest hour that day, dispatchers took
181 calls on the county’s non-emergency number as well. Although cell-phone
technologies have since changed, at the time of the Columbine shootings, 911
cell calls were received on the county’s non-emergency number. Dispatch also
managed radio traffic for other law enforcement incidents, fire and emergency
medical calls and daily county business.
The staff answered every 911 call during the crisis,
and the center experienced no technical difficulties.
DOWNLOAD: ASSORTED 911 CALLS
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