Sevier County dispatchers received counseling after wildfires - WSMV Channel 4

Sevier County dispatchers received counseling after wildfires

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NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) -

Thousands of calls for help ended in 14 deaths and countless lives changed, especially for the people who answered the calls and were unable to help during the deadly Gatlinburg wildfires.

While the Smoky Mountains were on fire, dispatchers went to work, not knowing if their homes and families were safe and answering desperate calls without being able to help them.

It was a scary day not only for those trying to make it out of Gatlinburg alive, but also for those dispatchers taking the calls. Many of them trying to stay calm as people on the other end were terrified for their lives.

On Nov. 28, thousands of people in Sevier County called 911 begging for help. On the other end were 16 dispatchers whose training was put to the test the second these wildfires began to spread.

“Can you get out of the cabin?” one dispatcher asked.

“We're out of the cabin, we're in the car, but there's trees blocking the road … I can’t pass,” the caller said.

Dispatchers did their best to direct people where to go while also dealing with emotional pleas to stay alive.

“My name's Erin,” another caller said. “It’s OK, calm down. Please, you have to calm down,” the caller is heard saying to a young girl in the background.

“Stay on the line, let me bring on the police department. Ma’am ... don't hang up,” the dispatcher said.

The News 4 I-Team has learned out of 16 dispatchers in Sevier County, one resigned after the wildfires. The remaining 15 received counseling in the weeks to follow.

"It was used more during that first month of December than anything,” said Sevier County EMA Director John Mathews.

Mathews, who has since resigned and has only one week left on the job, said 911 calls were coming in so fast that night they were rolling over to other lines they didn't even know they had. Dispatchers are trained to stay calm. Some even have medical training.

“I’m really nervous, you know. I’m scared, and I’m going home right now,” another caller said.

“Ma’am, I understand you're scared. I need you to listen to me right now. Be with me right now, OK?” the dispatcher said.

Mathews said situations like this can also affect dispatchers emotionally.

“I’m going to get somebody headed that way. Please just keep your safety in mind, OK? I’m sorry, I know this is scary. We're trying to get everybody that way,” another dispatcher said.

"It’s safe to say that has never happened to any level like it did on Nov. 28,” Mathews said.

One major change in Sevier County since those fires is new emergency sirens. Five new sirens were installed in Gatlinburg back in May, and at least nine others will be going up throughout Sevier County. The upgraded system will alert people about severe weather and evacuation alerts.

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