by Stephen Forshee
OCFD Dispatch is staffed by 15 firefighters assigned to three 24-hour shifts, five people per shift. It has three radio consoles–two for dispatching and one supervisor console. Each console has four radio channels–a primary operating channel, two backup channels, and a mutual-aid channel, the communication channel for multiple agencies assigned to one incident. Console radio channels can be changed at any time with the push of a button. A message then is broadcast to all fire department rigs to do the same with their personal radios. Each console is also equipped with an E-911 telephone and a telephone equipped to receive calls over the seven-digit emergency number. This phone has a rollover for up to seven emergency calls. It also has two incoming lines for nonemergency calls.
The five dispatchers assigned to work on April 19 had reported for duty by 7 a.m. The audio test for all the stations was given at that time, and the radio test for all fire department rigs was given at 7:05 a.m. Over the course of the morning, there was the usual assortment of medical calls, car fires, and automobile accidents. By 9:00 a.m., things had slowed to the point where we had only one or two medical calls working and minimal radio traffic; the office was fairly quiet. Engine companies were preparing to do building inspections in their districts. The chief and assistant chiefs were on their way to a morning meeting. Everything seemed on course for a normal day.
At 9:02 a.m., however, things changed; and life as we knew it would never be the same again.
At first, the building shook and the windows rattled. Then, almost immediately, the phone lines started to light up. Most were calls from alarm companies reporting signals from businesses. Others were from the public, reporting some type of explosion and seeing smoke. By the time the first-arriving company at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building reported the situation there, every phone line in the dispatch office was lit up. With four people answering phones and one person monitoring radio transmissions, the first alarm was dispatched at 9:04. The normal first-alarm assignment responded: four engines, two trucks, one squad, and a district chief. Also, on the way to the scene were the chief and assistant chiefs who had been in the administrative office located six blocks west of the Murrah Building.
The arrival of the chief on the scene brought the call for a “general alarm” (the dispatching of every available piece in the department to the scene.) This put radio traffic at an all-time high. Having multiple radio channels always has been a benefit, but it proved to be invaluable during this ordeal. For the rest of the morning–and weeks to come–the companies on the scene operated on the primary channel, which we monitored and which was dedicated specifically to the incident. All other radio traffic came in to the department on the second and third backup channels.
In addition to what was going on at the Murrah Building, we now had a second problem to deal with: We still had to provide coverage for the rest of the city. In the middle of all the calls reporting the explosion, we were also receiving calls from surrounding agencies offering their support. These agencies provided people to staff the vacated stations until additional personnel could arrive; this is where the mutual-aid channel came into play. It made it possible for Dispatch to communicate with the other agencies without any problems. Companies would be dispatched from the stations and then given any additional information or directions over the radio.
Meanwhile, in the Dispatch Office, phone calls were still pouring in nonstop. Not only were calls still reporting the explosion, but medical calls and fires were being reported also. As reports of the explosion were being broadcast on television, calls were coming in from all across the state offering supplies and assistance in the search. To help handle the volume of incoming calls and to provide assistance, off-duty dispatchers were called in around 10 a.m.; another crew was called in around 4 p.m. This steady stream of calls continued throughout the night; thanks to the agencies who manned the stations and the off-duty personnel who came in to answer phones, the city maintained its proper coverage. No calls went unanswered. At the height of the incident, eight dispatchers, including the chief dispatcher, were working around the clock.
Communication between companies at the bomb site and Dispatch was a priority from the time the first company arrived on the scene. To help simplify communication during the recovery and rescue efforts and to limit radio traffic to emergencies and vital information, cellular phones were used. As personnel checked in for duty at the command post, individuals in charge of specified areas were issued phones. Subsequently, all requests for supplies or changes in staffing would be relayed by telephone. Each division was given a list of numbers compiled at the command post, keeping radio transmissions at a minimum. n
JERRY FLOWERS, sergeant, Oklahoma City Police Gang Unit: Steve and I went through a small door. The floor went drastically downhill. Water came up over the top of my boots and the dust nearly prevented us from breathing. It was very dark as we crawled over large pillars of concrete just to get to an area where we could hear people yelling for help. We made our way into a room where large slabs of concrete were lying from one floor down to the next. There was a large hole you could look up through and see the nine broken floors hanging above our heads. Large ropes of steel rebar hung down and others protruded from the floor where we were trying to walk.
People were yelling for help. Our vision was impaired by darkness and dust. One lady was imprisoned under a huge slab of concrete and rebar, yelling to rescue workers not to leave her. I reached between the rebar and rock, patting her back and telling her we would get her out. Firefighters swarmed into the room. A generator was started and portable lights lit up the area we were in. As firefighters started to cut the steel to free the woman, we heard another cry. Looking down into what appeared to be a well, we saw a lady trapped on her back by concrete. The floor around her was filling up with water. She kept yelling, “Don`t let me drown.” Rescuers attacked the well to free the woman and were successful.
From the book In Their Name, edited by Clive Irving, Project Recovery OKC. Copyright © 1995. Reprinted with the permission of Random House, Inc.
STEPHEN FORSHEE is a sergeant and assistant shift supervisor in the Oklahoma City (OK) Fire Department Communications Department.