Dispatchers praised for putting training into action in January explosion

Metro 911 dispatchers are being praised for taking quick action Jan. 12 when a propane tank exploded and destroyed a family's home in Coopers Creek. (WCHS/WVAH)

When there is an emergency, you dial 911 and depend on the person on the other end of the line to send help that could save your life.

A stunned family in Coopers Creek had their home turn into a blazing scene when a 1,000-gallon propane tank rolled down a hill and exploded, destroying their home in the middle of the night. They only had seconds to call 911.

The dispatcher on the other end of the line had only seconds to react and saved their lives.

"We walked out the front door and a minute later everything just blew up," explosion victim Sherri Young said at the time.

Kanawha County Commissioner Kent Carper said the entire Metro 911 system performed heroically on the morning of Jan. 12 - especially the dispatcher.

"In this particular case, the dispatcher had the training and knowledge to warn and direct the family not to go to move their cars. They know there's a gas leak, so they want to move their car to save the car. In my judgment, and I think the evidence is absolute, they would have been killed," Carper said.

The operators and dispatchers of the 911 center work in a cavernous, dimly lit and cool office. They number at least a dozen every shift. At peak times, 14 people are there, multi-tasking as they delegate work to first responders to all points in Kanawha County's 900 square miles.

The dispatchers keep their cool at all times as they keep track of responders on enormous computer screens. Their boss said it takes a year to complete the proper training to become part of this important team.

"It's like classroom training – like you’re back in school,” said Rick McElhaney, deputy director of operations. “They learn how to handle dangerous situations and getting people to safety, like in the explosion."

Some common traits among people who will excel at this type of work, McElhaney said, are multitaskers with good computer skills and good people skills.

In an emergency situation, response to your call depends on how well you can communicate. You should know exactly where you are calling from, whether it's from along a rural road, or city or town street. It’s also important to give some distinguishing characteristics because, for instance, there could be more than one Main Street in different cities within a county.

Most of all, McElhaney said, you should listen.

"Because we're going to ask you a bunch of questions. At the same time we're asking, we are already entering this into our computer. Then someone is automatically dispatching the call," he said.

In regards to the propane tank explosion, Carper said he has filed a formal complaint with the West Virginia State Fire Marshal's Office to determine if the propane tank was secure by the company responsible for filling it.

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