E911 dispatchers respond to ice storm
By Robert Cloud
Waupaca County E911 dispatchers received reports of 23 vehicle crashes in just two hours on Jan. 16.
The ice storm made rural roads impassable and stranded motorists throughout Waupaca County.
According to Communications Capt. Rob Karski, with the Waupaca County Sheriff’s Office, the county responded to 39 calls of stranded vehicles on Monday, Jan. 16. Another 26 calls for vehicles stuck on the road came in on Jan. 17, and 10 on Jan. 18.
The town of Dayton was especially hard hit.
“We had eight cars stuck on Virginia Drive and Crystal Road,” said Jody Schultz, the communications center supervisor. “There were five vehicles stuck on Crystal Road and County K.”
Schultz was one of six dispatchers who worked the night of the ice storm. A typical shift has two to three dispatchers.
At one point, there were so many calls coming in that the dispatchers set up an easel board because the calls would not all fit on their screens.
“We used the easel to make sure we did follow up calls,” Schultz said. “I was calling back the people I knew who were still in vehicles, and I was in contact with Aaron Larson, the wrecker driver for the truck stop.”
The first storm-related 911 call came at 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 16. A 3/4 ton truck slid partially off the road, and a pickup with a trailer jackknifed.
Deputy Jon Loken was dispatched to the scene. Within 10 minutes of his arrival, Loken reported to dispatch that a third vehicle was stuck.
By 5:07 p.m., only the truck and trailer were left.
“We had a tow ban in effect,” Karski said. “If the tow companies didn’t have chains, they weren’t being allowed out.”
The Waupaca Truck Stop was one of the few towing services on call for the county.
“They were sending a sand and salt truck out with their tow truck,” Schultz said.
To keep up with the growing number of calls, the vehicles were being pushed off the road temporarily, rather than being towed into town.
Deputies, county sand trucks and tow trucks were unable to get to stranded vehicles on rural roads due to the ice and hills.
At 4:49 p.m. on Jan. 16, a caller reported that four cars were disabled on Parfreyvile Road. Due to the ice, no deputy could get there.
Dayton Supervisor Jane Haasch called 911 at 4:51 p.m. and reported that five cars were off the road at Crystal Road and County Trunk K.
She told dispatch she was worried someone would come down the hill and hit them.
Deputy Patrick Gorchals was dispatched to the area and stayed there with his flashers on until the vehicles were moved off the road.
Some of the vehicles were towed only as far as the Red Mill parking lot.
Long day for law enforcement
Prior to the ice storm, area law enforcement responded to a threatened Waupaca school shooting posted on Facebook.
Officers were sent to every Waupaca public school, and the Communications Center assigned one dispatcher to work exclusively on calls related to the incident.
Karski called Schultz and asked her to come in, so there were four dispatchers at the center.
After investigators identified who posted the message, a debriefing was held at Waupaca High School.
Karski and two dispatchers, Cathi Wegener and Paul Jensen, went to the debriefing at 3 p.m. on Jan. 16.
“We examined what we did well, what we could have done better,” Karski said.
Karski said the communications officers left the school shortly after 4 p.m.
“Everything is icy by that time. We turn on the radio and it was really busy with vehicles sliding off the roads and vehicle crashes,” Karski said.
In addition to Wegener, Jensen and Schultz, Supervisor Tara Pachan and dispatchers Kim Allard and Kirk Merrill were also on duty.
“I thought it was the worst ice storm I ever experienced in the 10 years that I’ve worked here,” Schultz said.
Schultz said the Communications Center is kept apprised of all incoming storms.
In the center, there is a weather-alert radio, a teletype and a direct telephone line to the National Weather Service in Green Bay.
“We watch the radar so we can see it coming,” Schultz said.
The Wisconsin State Patrol sends messages about road conditions four to five times a day, and the Waupaca County Communications Center must respond with local road conditions.
The Waupaca County Communications Center receives all emergency and administrative calls to the sheriff’s office.
On Jan. 16, the Communications Center received a total of 149 calls. Of those calls, 65 were received from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Karski said 73 storm-related crashes were reported in three days, beginning on Monday, Jan. 16.
He also noted there were no serious injuries reported from the crashes.
“I thought the teamwork was incredible,” Karski said, regarding the dispatchers.
“It was a high-stress situation, but we were all calm, cool and collected,” Schultz said. “We have a great team.”