JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – You hear a lot about Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department's firefighters and paramedics. They are some of the first you see on a scene to protect the community when things go wrong. But seldom do you hear about the first, first responders -- the 911 dispatchers.
For the first time ever, JFRD allowed news cameras inside JFRD headquarters -- the hub for its team of 911 dispatchers -- so News4Jax could tell the stories of these unsung heroes.
On an average day, JFRD receives 420 calls made to 911. From talking callers through delivering babies to giving life-saving CPR instructions, the dispatchers who answer save lives every day.
“You’re the first thing people deal with when something happens,” said Fire-Rescue Communications Officer Vola Brown. “Yes, we are the first responder to the first responder.”
But one specific day last month, Oct. 8, stands out as one of the most stressful in recent memory -- as a call came in that two of their own firefighters had been stabbed.
Dispatch: Rescue 2, signal 34. We’re at UF Health. We’re out back. Send JSO.
“Then all of a sudden on the radio we hear a signal 34 was called,” said Fire-Rescue Communications Officer Sutton Born. “A signal 34 is an ‘officer down’ and they need help.”
Brown described how she felt at that moment.
“Oh, sugar honey iced tea! That’s what’s going through my mind initially. Then, ‘OK, what do we need to do next?’” Brown said.
Capt. Latorrence Norris and Engineer Vincent Harper were attacked by a patient wielding a box cutter while they were taking him by ambulance to UF Health Jacksonville.
Dispatch: Rescue 2, send JSO. I’m, uh, I got one injured. Immediately!
“He came on the radio, and you could just tell in his voice that he says, ‘Signal 34’ and you can just tell. Everything kind of stopped for a second. And when he called, ‘Signal 34. Officer down,’ that’s when we just, we took over and got help to him,” said Born.
Dispatch: Emergency traffic, emergency traffic only. Signal 34 at UF downtown. All Units.
Norris was moments away from death, but the quick-thinking dispatchers are credited with making some of the first split-second decisions that helped save his life.
“We are normally calm people anyway, so everybody just knew what to do,” Brown said.
This team of dispatchers alerted everyone within moments -- from the fire chief to the mayor. But Born decided to make one more call -- a call to UF Health.
“I said, ‘We’ve got an officer down. He’s en route to your hospital. Can you send a team to go look?’” Born told us.
UF Health responded quickly to Born’s request, and Norris was rushed to the emergency room in a hospital golf cart.
“I was very thankful for FCO Sutton to even think to call UF,” added Brown.
Keep in mind, while all this was happening with the firefighters stabbed, there were other emergencies happening at the same time around the city. For example, a unit that was on the way to a man who wasn’t breathing got stuck behind a train.
911 caller: He still hasn’t moved and he’s not breathing. He’s slumped over in his chair sitting outside on the porch.
“A passerby had found someone non-responsive. The patient was not awake, not breathing. So we went ahead and started CPR,” explained Fire-Rescue Communications Officer Kirsten White.
Dispatch: OK, place the heel of your hand on the breast bone, right between the nipples, and put your other hand on top of that hand.
White gave the woman instructions over the phone on chest compressions, which she continued for 19 minutes -- all while the emergency with the two injured firefighters continued to unfold at UF Health.
“It was very tense. You’re focused on handling the one situation at hand. Everyone’s doing their job,” said White.
But the efforts by White and the man who listened to her instructions over the phone, saved another life that night.
“When the units arrived, they were able to get a ROSC (Return of Spontaneous Circulation),” explained White.
Another 911 call -- happening at the exact same time that night -- included a different dispatcher helping a caller deliver a baby.
“We just want to make sure they get home the same way we get home every night,” said Brown.
Norris, who suffered the most severe injuries, was released from the hospital after about a week. The accused stabber, Tony Harris, is facing two counts of attempted murder.