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8 dispatchers are back in Utah after helping in New Orleans

Lindsay Larsen, right, watches as Marcy Willits, center, gets a hug from Carol Groustra, bureau communications chief for the Utah Department of Public Safety, after landing at Salt Lake City International Friday.
Lindsay Larsen, right, watches as Marcy Willits, center, gets a hug from Carol Groustra, bureau communications chief for the Utah Department of Public Safety, after landing at Salt Lake City International Friday.
Jason Olson, Deseret Morning News

Eight Utah dispatchers returned from New Orleans Friday night where they had been bolstering the ranks of exhausted Louisiana counterparts.

Their trip marks the first occasion any Utah dispatcher has left the state in an assistance effort to work for another bureau, according to Utah officials.

"They were just very excited and eager to help," said Adrian Ruiz, manager of the Salt Lake communications center. "This was a great opportunity. They don't usually get opportunities to rise to the occasion."

The dispatchers were sent to the Jefferson Parish in the middle of New Orleans, where they helped man the backup 911 system for the huge area affected by Katrina.

Ian Borders, dispatcher from the Salt Lake communication center, said the calls were not quite routine.

"There were a lot of calls about what to do," he said. "People are thinking about coming back into town. They want to know how to get back in, if the roads are open, if the power's on."

"For what they've been through, they were amazingly nice," he said.

During the week the dispatchers were there, Borders said, he didn't take one call dealing with a violent crime.

"It doesn't mean they weren't happening though, maybe others took those calls," he said. "Most of the calls were about, now people are back in their homes, how do they report stuff that has been stolen."

The Utahns were a huge relief to weary Jefferson County dispatchers.

Scott Wolford from the Cedar City communication center said the Louisiana dispatchers had been living in their call center.

"They were working 12-hour shifts," he said. "I feel so bad for those dispatchers and people there, they've suffered so much."

The Utah group left for Louisiana Sept. 17 and was not expected to return until Oct. 3, but they were evacuated early due to Hurricane Rita, which overwhelmed levees the day after they left.

Wolford described the return to Utah as bittersweet.

"It was very difficult to leave, to come home where it's safe and leave our colleagues. They're exhausted and now they start all over again with Rita."

The decision was made Thursday afternoon to bring the volunteers home, said Carol Groustra, bureau communication chief for the Utah Department of Public Safety. But there are plans to send a second group.

"The initial plan was that the second group was going to go out on Oct. 2," she said. "Now we don't know when. I think a lot is going to depend on the assessment of the damage in New Orleans. It's hard to say. It's really hard to say."

The all-volunteer group came from Salt Lake, Box Elder, Cedar City, Vernal and Richfield communication centers and represented approximately one-tenth of employees in those bureaus, which meant those who stayed behind also needed to help by picking up extra shifts.

"We don't have a surplus of dispatchers," Groustra said. "I think knowing the role they were all playing has really helped. It really has been a morale booster for everyone."

Joseph Clasby from the Salt Lake communication center was slated to leave next week as part of the second eight-man group. He said he was excited to go and that he knows it's only a matter of time before his group will be able to start its trip.

"Deep down all of us wants to help people," he said. "Every dispatcher innately wants to help people. When we learned they were so short-staffed, it wasn't a question whether we'd help or not, but when do we need to go."


E-mail: jgreaves@desnews.com