Wednesday, July 27, 2011

In an emergency

The aftermath of my Tuesday afternoon adventure ... 

I was in the right place at the right time during Tuesday’s storm – the local police station. 
Each week, I gather information from the Lieutenant [LT for short] to compile briefs for one of my newspaper's police log. He and I had made special arrangements to sit down at 4 p.m. Tuesday, as he had meetings to attend all day. He should have been at home, rather than at work, but both he and the Chief understand the importance of providing a police log each week. Talk about dedication!

Driving to the station, I made note of the oddly colored clouds – blue – and their swirly shapes. The rain hadn’t dropped yet, but I could tell it was coming. The clouds quickly covered the bright skies and traveled fast, engulfing the downtown area. Raindrops fell as I opened the station door.
Sitting upstairs in the Lt’s office, I recounted to him the color of the clouds. He told me to watch out for the green ones – those are trouble. The rain fell harder, in sheets, and as I peered out his window at the tree bending wildly in the wind, the power went out. Instantly, the room was illuminated solely with the blue glow of his computer screen - he’s got it on battery backup – and over the radio another officer stated the station was running on generators. Three times the lights flickered and power went out. 
And then, opportunity struck. 

The Lt. asked if I wanted to go downstairs to the dispatch station and watch how the department handles an emergency, during an emergency. Enthusiastically, I said, “Yes.”
And there I sat. The Lt. joined the dispatcher  in the second command station. For a short second, the area was oddly quiet, with just the hum of a bevy of computers. Suddenly, the phone lines glowed red and the calls poured in as fast as the storm hit. Just watching the two of them handle the calls was stressful, and I can’t imagine what it would be like to be in their shoes. 

Reported were lines down on Bolton Street, a woman trapped in her car in front of the library with live wires touching it, trees down on roof tops and roads inaccessible. Among those serious calls astonishingly were calls from residents complaining their cable was out, a speed limit sign had fallen and questions of when the power would be back on. These calls flooded the lines of those parties calling for real emergencies. 9-1-1 is not the number to dial if your power or cable goes out.
Then, a call came in of parties clinging to pylons in the Connecticut River by the Veterans Bridge. The dispatcher radioed Fire District 1 for assistance and they were subsequently dispatched. I dispatched myself. 

I drove to the downtown area and passed an ambulance and a fire vehicle parked in front of the Lower Canal Park gate. A local T.V. reporter was parked just past them, and she was filming the flooded Main Street. I approached the emergency vehicles and saw they were unoccupied and meandered into Lower Canal Park. I walked down a muddy, brush-strewn path and ended up at the water’s edge, underneath the bridge, just in time to capture on camera the parties being rescued. Both of the town's fire districts responded, as well as firefighters from the city over and representatives from the State Police Fire Marshall’s Office.

Back at the station, I emptied sand from my high heels and went back to watching the Lt. and the dispatcher handle the calls. They had calmed by then, and when there wasn’t a buzz of tones, the Lt. and I were able to complete the police log. 

As a reporter, this was a-once-in-a-lifetime opportunity - sitting behind dispatch, listening firsthand to emergency calls and being able to quickly learn of incidents on which I should report. But also as a resident of  the town, it was a great way to see our local and neighboring emergency personnel in action. They’re truly remarkable and they really do stay calm under pressure – whether it’s answering a slew of calls from frantic residents or risking their lives to save others in the water. Their work is impressive, laudable, and should not go unnoticed or without constant praise. 

The day I dress up in fancy clothes and high heels, I end up running down a muddy ravine to photograph and subsequently cover a rescue from the Connecticut River! Hah!