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From an underground room, 911 dispatchers handled hours of chaos

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  • From an underground room, 911 dispatchers handled hours of chaos

    CUMBERLAND — “9-1-1.”

    The phrase was repeated hundreds of times Friday afternoon as the Allegany County Department of Emergency Services and Communications directed the response to a chain reaction accident on Interstate 68 in eastern Garrett County.

    Through the confusion of phones ringing, radios chattering and people calling back and forth, the chaos in the Allegany County 911 center coordinated an efficient handling of Friday’s 75-car-plus pileup.

    Dispatcher Bill Lamberson said, “The first call came in about 13:15 (1:15 p.m.) for an accident in the eastbound lanes with approximately five vehicles involved.”

    “We were pretty quiet up until then,” Dispatcher Gerald Cook said.

    The dispatchers sat in a dimly lit underground room facing banks of computer monitors and phones with more buttons than in a plane cockpit. They talked on the radio and typed in instructions at the same time, gathering and processing information about the accident scene.

    Cumberland fire, rescue and ambulance units were dispatched to the accident, which happened just prior to the Finzel bridge. They were on the scene waiting to pick up a patient when the second accident happened in the westbound lanes of the interstate around 2:15 p.m.

    Lamberson said, “They started triage and they requested every ambulance that we could send.”

    The scene quickly escalated to include dozens of cars, including three tractor-trailers and a leaking gasoline tanker, and extra help in the 911 center.

    “We were told by those on scene that they could see at least 75 cars,” said Lamberson.

    “It unraveled from there,” said Cook.

    A third dispatcher came in to help the two dispatchers who were already working. A call also went out to the amateur radio operators organization for its assistance.

    “The traumas were sent to Cumberland Memorial and injuries like broken bones were sent to Sacred Heart,” said Lamberson.

    About 64 patients were treated at the hospitals and 51 more, all uninjured, remained in Finzel at the Eastern Garrett Volunteer Fire Department. Buses from the Allegany County Board of Education were brought into service to assist the ambulances in transporting the injured.

    At the peak of activity, Allegany and Garrett Emergency Management were coordinating 30 units on scene, including units from Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

    The amateur radio operators were at the Eastern Garrett Volunteer Fire Department and at both hospitals in Allegany County.

    “They were a Godsend. Instead of trying to cram all of this in on our radios, they set up relays to communicate information to us,” said Dick DeVore, director of emergency services and communications.

    Ken Currence with the Radio Amateurs Communication Emergency Services said, “They called us up and we called up our operators who were close.”

    Around 4:30 p.m., the dispatchers began to allow different units to leave the scene as patients were transported to the two hospitals.

    Robin Peterson, who was the amateur radio operator on the scene, said, “As the ambulances were going to the hospital, we would let them (the 911 center) know how many were being transported by who and where.”

    The Allegany County Hazardous Incident Response Team was called to the scene by dispatchers around 5 p.m. to deal with the leaking gasoline tanker. It had taken that long for the units on the scene to be able to work their way through the smashed cars to get to the tanker.

    “It’s a heck of a way to kick off the summer,” said DeVore.
    Someone once told me that time is a predator that stalks us all our lives. But maybe time is also a companion who goes with us on our journey, and reminds us to cherish the moments of our lives because they will never come again.

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