911 Operators Stayed Solid at Their Post

It was the first call that came to the City’s 9-1-1 Call Center last Monday after a tornado blew through, and the woman on the other line was so hysterical she could barely utter a word.

The woman was trying to breath, but having been caught in the tornado on Broadway in her car, she was breathless and hyperventilating.

“Are you okay ma’am?” asked the calltaker.

For quite some time, there are just screams and crying and sounds of the woman gasping for air – quite literally scared to death.

As she described heavy winds and broken windows, she struggled to catch her wind.

With some calming words, the calltaker was able to calm her down.

“We just had a big storm, or a tornado, but it’s gone now; it’s ok,” said the calltaker calmly.

Then there was the man calling from work because his wife and kids were seemingly trapped in the basement while floodwaters were rising in that same cellar.

“My wife and children are trapped in a basement [on] Vinal Street,” the man said curtly. “I don’t know if everyone’s ok. The basement is filling up with water and they can’t get out. They’re blocked in. They need help right now.”

“We’re sending someone right now,” said the calltaker.

Then there was the man who called from what seemed like an epicenter for the destruction at the corner of Park Avenue and Broadway.

“There was a tornado that just touched down on Broadway and Park Avenue; a dumpster is in the middle of the street.”

“Is anyone hurt that you know of?” asked the calltaker calmly.

“I just can’t tell right now,” the man said, only minutes after the tornado came through. “There’s a bunch of people out and a gentleman in the car at the corner…You have a bunch of power lines down. It’s like a war zone. This is crazy. We got caught in the middle of it, but luckily we’re not hurt.”

“Do you know if anyone else is hurt?” came the question again.

“Right now there is a dumpster that flew against a car and I believe the people are still inside the vehicle at the corner…Oh my God; look at all this.”

“Ok, we’ll have someone come right over,” said the calltaker.

And then there were the many calls from distraught people like one elderly Italian woman who couldn’t come to grips with what happened and just needed a calming voice and some counsel from another person. Like most of the hundreds that flooded the lines, the woman could only plead for help in broken English, just wanting some sort of explanation and reassurance from someone in charge.

“I’m scared and I want someone to help me,” said the woman.

“Are you hurt?” asked the calltaker.

“I’m not hurt, but I’m so scared, please help,” said the woman.

Those examples are just a snippet of the incredible and record-breaking action at the City’s call center, which logged more calls in a two-hour period than ever before. The center became so jammed with 9-1-1 calls that, for the first time ever, the backup system kicked in. That backup system automatically sent overloaded calls to the Lynn 9-1-1 call center. However, there were so many calls that the Lynn center became overloaded and the overloaded calls were finally absorbed by Boston 9-1-1.

Statistics from the City’s call center showed 172 inbound calls on Monday, July 28 – an all-time record. The calls spiked tremendously at 9:30, when the three calls logged in the 8 a.m. hour spiked to nearly 50 in the 9 a.m. hour. Some 30 or more came in through the 10 a.m. hour.

Call volumes didn’t level off until about 3 p.m., but spiked briefly again around 6 and 7 p.m. when folks arrived home from work.

No one to this day is sure how many actual calls came in that were bumped to other cities or came directly to the Revere Police.

The voices on the other end of the phone were a patchwork of calltakers and others in the Central Fire Station who triaged the calls – looking first for injuries and dangerous situations – and then acted as counselors to calm down a petrified public.

Those in the center were Firefighters Michael Amore, David Carifio, Deputy Chief Michael Viviano, Calltaker Heather Leary, and Administrative Assistant to the Chief Paula Sarcia.

“As soon as it passed by us and we saw the damage to Central Fire, we knew the calls were going to start coming,” said Deputy Viviano. “Then we just started getting hundreds and hundreds of calls. We couldn’t keep up. It was one after another. We had to begin to prioritize, to find out if anyone was hurt. We kept a list of reported damage and sent out responses to injury reports or dangerous situations. A lot of people were traumatized and didn’t know what to do. It’s their first reaction to call 9-1-1. The calltakers went above an beyond to handle what was coming.”

Said Amore, “It was just a hectic four hours. It wasn’t until about 3 p.m. the calls started to slow down. I had to log in all the calls and it took me until 6 p.m. to get that done. I had six pages. We don’t even know how many calls went to Lynn or how many Lynn pushed to Boston.”

Calltakers like Sarcia, who is not a calltaker but rather an administrator for the fire chief, jumped into action. She said she knew they would not be able to handle the volume after she looked out her office window and observed the aftermath.

“I knew right off Heather was going to need help,” said Sarcia. “We saw it go by and we knew the calls were going to come quickly. I just ran over there and jumped on the board.”

Nearby firefighters like Bob Morrissey, who lives on Park Avenue, left their homes and came in without being called. Carifio and others – without prompting – headed straight for the call center as well.

Such things were very important as calltakers and dispatchers ran into major problems when trying to route response teams to serious situations. Many of the roads were impassable, and no one knew which ones. Calltakers kept a running list of what streets were blocked, and even on the first call, they couldn’t get out of the station because the station’s flagpole blocked the door.

It was another reason that the unexpected help was crucial.

“Dave Carifio wasn’t even supposed to work, but he knew it was going to hit the fan and took it upon himself to show up,” said Viviano. “Lauren [O’Hara], a veteran calltaker, drove here through the rubble just to be here to help. There are so many people who, though they were not working, took it upon themselves to show up. It was critical because we could have never handled it without them.”

But, most of all, as the crew looks back on what will go down as the busiest 9-1-1 day in Revere history, they marvel that none of the hundreds of people who called were killed, maimed or seriously injured.

“Probably the most incredible thing is nobody got hurt,” Viviano said. “That’s still amazing to me.”

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