BAY COUNTY, Fla. (WMBB)- Building up to the storm, we heard law enforcement officials repeatedly say there will come a time when it’s too dangerous to respond and that’s exactly what happened as Hurricane Michael made landfall. As the storm raged overhead a slew of 911 calls flooded dispatchers across the Panhandle.
“We talked about that a lot before the storm, that there would be a time where we could no longer respond… and that time did come,” said Bay Co. Sheriff, Tommy Ford.
There were only 8 operators on staff at the Bay County Emergency Operations Center and all of them were dealing with a call volume they’ve never seen before.
“Between the hours of 11 o’clock in the morning and 1 o’clock in the afternoon, we received 498 911 calls,” said BCSO Communications Director, Lt. Andy Husar. There were almost 500 calls to dispatch center but heavy rain and strong winds prevented officers from being able to respond.
“If they are injured during the storm, then they can’t help anyone after the storm,” said Ford.
Stacy Withey said she knew officers couldn’t respond during Hurricane Michael and didn’t think she’d ever even need to call 911 until the unthinkable happened.
“My husband and my oldest son were outside moving one of the motorcycles because it was right underneath a pine tree and we had seen a couple of trees fall. Of course, I was standing at the door screaming, get in the house, get in the house, and my husband turned to me and took a step toward me and just got this shocked look on his face and collapsed. He had a massive heart attack. A lot of times, when the pressure drops as fast as it did, if you have a heart condition, then it can cause heart attacks. He had told me even if you had been at the hospital, they wouldn’t have been able to save him,” said Withey.
Her neighbor picked up the phone, dialed 911, and prayed for help. She said she can’t imagine what the dispatchers went through that day and although her husband didn’t make it, she is forever grateful for the dispatcher who did everything she could from so far away.
“She was absolutely amazing. She told us how to do the chest compressions, how to breathe… she walked us through everything. She was amazing,” she said.
Lt. Husar who oversees dispatch communications knows the hardships and difficulties of the job firsthand. “They’re the unsung heroes of the county. They are the true first responder,” said Lt. Husar.
However, there even came a point where dialing 911 was no longer an option. Not only were cellphone signals all off the grid, but other communications within the agency failed.
“Loss of communications was very crippling to us and helpless feeling from my perspective. As Sheriff, I want to be coordinating with the police chiefs and finding out what their needs are, what our needs are and I’ve got to coordinate with our people,” Ford said.
Sheriff Ford said new technology obtained by the department, and communications should never be an issue again.
“This device (a new mobile command unit) has multiple cellphone carriers as well as the ability to hook up to a satellite trailer here at the office,” said Ford.
The mobile unit can be set up anywhere and can re-establish communications when another form is down, compatible with a number of carriers, and an internet hotspot. For others, they’ve learned that maybe new technology isn’t always the best way to improve.
“Today’s society, we’ve gotten lazy with electronics, searching on the internet, talking on a cellphone. Regroup and start teaching back the old school ways of handwritten notes and runners and messengers,” said Lt. Husar.
With lessons learned, comes growth and moving forward better than we were before.
“Yes, it was a horrible day. Our lives were forever changed, our County was forever changed. But every day is a little better,” said Withey.