North Coast Journal


The working world of 911

by Wally Graves

It 6:44 p.m. on a clear, dry July evening a 911 phone call came to dispatchers Tom Sauls and Gary Cooper on duty at the Eureka fire station on Sixth Street.

Sauls and Cooper had finished their evening snacks and were well settled into their staggered 10-hour shifts at the dispatcher's console.

A woman's voice cried, "A wreck! Cars on fire!"

The computer screen before Sauls and Cooper gave them instant knowledge of where the call came from, and who the phone was listed to. The screen told them by location that this was a job not for the sheriff, or Highway Patrol, but for the Eureka police.

It told them that Eureka's City Ambulance was the closest medical source, and that the yellow trucks of the Unified Fire District station on Harris Street near Redwood Acres were the closest fire fighters.

The dispatchers' phones were swamped with calls reporting the accident. The crash appeared to be a head-on, with fire and injuries, at Hodgson and M streets near Henderson Center.

6:45 p.m.
At the Redwood Acres Unified Fire District station Capt. Ed Nellist, 47, and Engineer John Wilson, 45, had just finished dinner. They heard the dispatcher's summons. They donned boots, hats and their other turnout gear, and with Firefighter Tom Nix aboard their truck headed west along Harris Street, siren blaring.

6:46 p.m.
In the ramshackle headquarters of City Ambulance on Seventh Avenue just up from Broadway, an experienced paramedic, Charles Van Buskirk, 32, was among half a dozen technicians standing by along with a newcomer, Emergency Medical Technician Christine Cox, 24.

Van Buskirk drew the call from Dispatchers Sauls and Cooper. He and a partner jumped in the cab of their white and orange ambulance, Code 3, lights flashing and siren wailing, toward Henderson Center.

Still 6:46
Eureka Firefighter Rusty Goodlive, 33, in the very building where Sauls and Cooper were fending phone calls, was working in the garage by the engines when the dispatcher's voice sent him for his gear, joined by his captain, James Warren, and Engineer Gary Cahill. Seconds later they were heading up Seventh in Engine 4, in pursuit of Van Buskirk's ambulance.

Eureka Police Officer Brandy Fuller, 30, was patrolling in his black-and-white Mustang downtown. His radio gave him the news. He headed south along H Street, and -- well before reaching the scene -- he saw the black plume of smoke rising from the wreck.

Turning east on Hodgson, Fuller saw in the quiet neighborhood of neat lawns and modest one-story houses, a Dodge Colt, its rear axle and wheels torn off, aflame against a burning parked car at the curb. The fire's heat had set a wooden fence ablaze beyond the sidewalk, and had melted asphalt under the Dodge.

A woman with burns to her face, arms and legs lay on the lawn across the street and -- as he would later report -- Fuller saw she "was being cared for by citizens."

A second victim, a badly burned boy, lay unconscious against the curb, also being "treated by citizens."

By now Firefighter Rusty Good-live's red Engine 4 from downtown Eureka arrived to see "tons of people" standing near the wrecked cars and burn victims. The red truck joined Paramedic Van Buskirk's ambulance, and Capt. Nellist's yellow pumper engine, whose crews were hurrying to attend the injured and to put down the last of the flames.

Officer Fuller was joined at the scene by his watch commander, Sgt. Tony Zanotti. They radioed for a second ambulance. Christine Cox would be in that one.

Sgt. Zanotti and Officer Fuller called for traffic control and by 6:53 Officer Kris Mechals, 38, arrived in her black-and-white unit and took up her station to the west. She was joined by Officer Kay Howden, 28, three minutes later, who blocked an intersection to the east to keep the streets clear of cars and pedestrians attracted by the smoke.

With the arrival of Cox's ambulance at 6:56, the full complement of emergency helpers had taken over from citizens whose heroics for the first 12 minutes had ensured that -- as it turned out -- there would be no deaths.

It was just 10 years ago, in December 1985, that Humboldt and Del Norte joined 911, the last of California's counties to activate a system which we now take for granted, but which was not initiated till 1968 in the East by AT&T and called "Telephone Rescue Network."

That network grew into our nationwide 911 consortium of independent law and fire agencies, ambulance companies and hospitals linked to provide prompt emergency help free of jurisdictional hassles.

Since December 1991, our North Coast system is computer enhanced, and today when we phone 911 we're connected -- depending upon where we phone from -- with one of four primary "Public Safety Answering Points" (PSAPs) at the Eureka Fire/Police, Fortuna Police, Humboldt County Sheriff or Arcata Police. Del Norte County is served by a similar network dispatched from the sheriff in Crescent City.

Fanning from these basic dispatchers is an automatic telephone network linking City Ambulance in Eureka; the California Division of Forestry with its dozen rural fire stations and 23 local fire districts, as well as Garberville and Fortuna ambulances; the U.S. Forest Service; and a South Trinity County dispatcher directing some emergencies to Fortuna. Also in the loop are the California Highway Patrol, the U.S. Coast Guard air station in McKinleyville and Humboldt State University police.

This cozy world of 911 is a far cry from the days when heroes who succored those threatened with injuries, or with drowning, or burns, had little backup to sustain survival.

What has not changed is the "bystander" citizen who starts these rescues.

Heroism today is distributed broadly among emergency workers like Nellist, Van Buskirk, Fuller and the others who shun the term "hero," disclaiming that they're "just doing what we're trained to do."

Take that 6:44 p.m. crash at Hodgson and M streets on that quiet July evening in 1994.

It was a citizen, Ann Hughes, who -- with many others -- phoned 911 to trigger the rescue; it was a citizen, Ann's husband, Ed, 48, and his neighbor, Joe Camacho, 41, who, according to police and fire, and according to their own reports, pulled the victims from their burning car. It was other citizens who carried the injured from harm's way to curb and grass, and who brought damp towels and warm comfort to the injured and dazed in those first crucial moments.

Capt. Nellist's report tells it crisply, like the captain himself:

"Engine 11 arrived to find an injury traffic accident with two vehicles on fire. Capt. Nellist and Firefighter Nix extinguished vehicle fire using a l-3/4" preconnected line, Engineer Wilson assisted City Ambulance crew with care of two burn victims who were already free of the fire vehicle upon engine 11's arrival."

The fire was knocked down in 90 seconds by Nellist and Nix. Engineer Wilson had started applying a saline solution, and tank water, to the seriously burned 12-year-old boy lying "screaming," Wilson said, near the curb.

Paramedic Van Buskirk, a tall, hefty man, joined burly Wilson, cutting and peeling clothing from the boy's flesh. And then there was the seriously burned 36-year-old woman (Mindy Ann Lovel) on the lawn across the street needing help.

Nellist's report continued, "It was learned that Mr. Camacho had witnessed the accident and had suffered smoke inhalation as he and a neighbor, Edgar Hughes, rescued Ms. Lovel and her son from the burning automobile."

Meanwhile, Capt. Warren and Engineer Cahill of Eureka Engine 4 oversaw the dying fire while Firefighter Goodlive joined Wilson and Van Buskirk in applying cooling saline solution and clean towels to the two burn victims. They prepared to lay the boy and the woman on backboards, and locking them in cervical collars to minimize bone and nerve damage.

As the second ambulance arrived, Christine Cox, a dark-haired relative newcomer to the crew, recalled the burned woman greeting her with "Hi, Chris." Cox was shocked to recognize Lovel, who was known to her from earlier encounters -- and who "was so badly burned I didn't know who she was at first," Cox said.

With Van Buskirk's help, Cox and her partner loaded the burned mother and son into their ambulance and headed for General Hospital, whose emergency staff had been alerted to call nurses from other floors.

It was then that Van Buskirk saw, among the crowd of people, a third victim lying on the lawn, suffering from scorched lungs and burns.

The victim was Joe Camacho, who, by all reports, had pulled Mindy and Patrick Lovel from their burning car.

Van Buskirk determined that Camacho needed hospital help.

Camacho protested he couldn't afford the ambulance.

"Your health comes first," Van Buskirk told him. "Worry about paying later." So Van Buskirk's ambulance followed Cox's to General Hospital emergency (and Van Buskirk saw to it that Camacho's ride was free).

Camacho's neighbor, Ed Hughes, a shy man, had disappeared after helping with the rescue into his own house. His arms and face were scorched from helping Camacho, but Hughes' burns were milder than Camacho's, and, being a welder, Hughes knew how to care for his burns.

By just after 7 p.m. both ambulances had disappeared. With the victims attended to, the crews commenced cleanup and investigation.

It appeared the burnt Dodge had swerved out of control at a lively speed heading west on Hodgson, managing to clip one moving car, and two parked cars, spinning 180 degrees, and in the process losing its rear axle and wheels en route to its fiery end a full block from where the trouble began.

Its gas tank, dragging the pavement, had sparked across a steel utility hole cover, setting the car afire. Two in the car escaped with minor hurts. Mindy Lovel, in front, and Patrick, in the rear, suffered most.

It was up to Capt. Nellist of Engine 11 to ensure that everyone who had needed help was offered help, so he spent the next hour interviewing drivers and owners of the cars involved. Then to General Hospital where another 20 minutes' questioning survivors satisfied him.

Then yellow Engine 11, with Nellist, Wilson and Nix, drove safely home to Redwood Acres, available from 8:18 p.m. for the next emergency.

Meanwhile, red Eureka Engine 4, with Capt. Warren, Engineer Cahill and Firefighter Goodlive, had long since returned to headquarters on Sixth Street and had been available for call by 7:29.

So, too, the ambulances had been cleared of their burdens by shortly after 7, though they would be called just hours later to transfer Mindy Lovel and her son Patrick to the airport for a trip via Mercy Air Ambulance (summoned from Redding) to the St. Francis Burn Center in San Francisco, where they were to undergo treatment into September.

It was left for Officer Fuller to write the police report.

At 7:04 Officer Fuller had called for Officer Kevin Lawson to join him for photos of the scene, and for help collecting data.

At 7:24 Fuller asked for three tow trucks, two from Pacific Towing, one from Six Rivers Towing, to take the disabled cars away. Gone were Officers Howden and Mechals from their posts as traffic controllers.

Darkness was upon Fuller as he and Lawson pondered evidence with watch commander Zanotti for a report which -- unbeknownst to them -- would later serve as the basis for eventual Carnegie Hero awards to Camacho and Hughes

Officer Lawson and Sgt. Zanotti left the scene at 7:43.

At 8:20 Officer Fuller drove his black-and-white Mustang to General Hospital for a checkup on the victims.

By 9:57, scarcely more than three hours after the crash, he was available for further duty.

Joe Camacho's free ride saved him some $600. For those without insurance MediCal covers so small a portion that the price for those who can pay is sharply inflated.

The fire and law enforcement costs are borne by taxpayers.

The 911 system is supported by a few pennies a month on our phone bills under the entry "Tax 911." According to Dee Dee Wilson, acting communications manager for the Eureka Fire/Police, whose "PSAP" is the North Coast's busiest, she and her dispatchers respond to about 60 police and 15 fire calls a day, though in crises, like last December's fierce windstorm, they took 50 calls in two hours.

Tucked in the corner of the yellow Co-Op building at First and E streets, in Old Town Eureka, lies a cluster of tiny offices known as North Coast Emergency Medical Services.

Through the work of Executive Director Larry Karsteadt, Clinical Coordinator Curt Watkins and Training Coordinator Judy Haines this Joint Powers Agency, funded by federal, state and local funds, keeps watch on the North Coast "tourist corridor" emergency medical services system.

Karsteadt describes EMS's overall role "to make sure all components of the EMS system," including citizen bystanders like Hughes and Camacho, dispatchers like Sauls and Cooper, first responders like Nellist's Engine 11, ambulance providers like Van Buskirk and Cox, and hospital emergency nurses and physicians "function effectively."

North Coast EMS, among many tasks, plans training, coordinates agencies, serves as a link with other EMS organizations, and educates the public to its role in public safety.

EMS was instrumental in funding and installing a dozen new call boxes along Highways 101, 299, 29 and 20, and in the works is a Humboldt County-directed effort to revamp the dispatch system to combine the present four-way split between Arcata, Eureka and the Humboldt Sheriff (Fortuna abstaining), along with an upgraded system by which dispatchers -- many locally trained -- can offer a wider range of emergency medical advice to 911 callers.

Case in point: Bill Reynolds, 20, dispatcher for Eureka Fire/Police, not long ago saved a Cutten baby's life over the phone by directing the choking child's father how to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and, failing that, instructed him in chest thrusts (two fingers, five taps).

The thrusts worked.

When the ambulance arrived the baby was starting to breathe.

Is Reynolds a hero?

"Everybody in emergency services is a hero," Reynolds declared.


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