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“I’ve been shot”: Dissecting Tucson’s 911 Center

KOLD News 10-10:30 p.m. recurring
Published: Dec. 21, 2021 at 10:30 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - A tight labor market continues to impact emergency services nationwide, including here in Southern Arizona.

The Tucson Police Department is still struggling to recruit and retain workers at it’s consolidated 911 dispatch center.

Nightmare scenarios can erupt at any moment, but we rarely get to see how it all plays out.

TPD gave KOLD a behind the scenes look at how level 1 emergencies are handled and its impact on staff.

It’s a 911 call no one in law enforcement wants to hear: An officer reports he’s shot onboard an Amtrack train after a passenger opens fire during a routine check for illegal guns, money and drugs.

911 dispatchers triage the emergency to figure out what services to provide and how to respond.

Tucson Police chief Chad Kasmar had been director of the call center at the time.

“If you scan the whole floor here, everybody on that day played a role in the public safety field response,” he explained.

The real-time crime analytics staff found a live video feed from a train hobbyist that captured the harrowing scene.

“We have access to cameras that are located in high traffic areas throughout the city and we’re able to either get into the cameras or observe those cameras and provide real time feedback to the field staff on what situation they may be facing when they respond to a scene,” Kasmar said.

Staff is able to watch and listen as dangerous situations like this unfold.

A shot is heard and a TPD officer holding a gun with a dog on a leash backs off the train.

A man appears, fires shots at them, and steps back inside. A dispatcher routes police cars to the address.

While those police units ran towards the active shooting scene, the communication staff had another job to do.

“We also need to get fire and EMS folks out there when it’s safe to get them to move in,” said Kasmar.

But sometimes situations fall well outside the norm, as was the case months earlier in a neighborhood embroiled in chaos and bloodshed.

A dispatcher takes a 911 call, during which the caller describes seeing house with smoke coming out of it. The caller doesn’t know if anyone is inside the house.

The 911 center is consolidated, meaning dispatchers handle police, fire and EMS calls allowing them to coordinate their actions.

“So there is no need for one center to call another center or to transfer that call out,” said Sharon McDonough, who oversees the department.

Tucson fire crews had been sent to put out the house fire.

But more 911 calls came in, distressing calls no one expected: A man had opened fire near the scene, even shooting at firefighters and neighbors trying to douse the flames.

A fire captain is shot in the arm. A neighbor is fatally shot in the head.

Then another 911 call comes from a different location. Someone had shot into an ambulance.

The 20-year-old ambulance driver is shot in the head and a paramedic is shot in the arm and chest.

It was a series of horrifying attacks all connected to the same gunman leading to a series of heartbreaking calls for the dispatchers on the other end.

“They were brutal. When you hear people in moments of distress, like any call, it’s difficult, but when you know it’s a member of your public safety team, that actually the victim of these scenes. It’s a little more personal,” McDonough said.

She explained the dispatchers in this room talk to the first responders on a regular basis.

“They know them by name, they know their voice, they have a relationship and now that’s the person that they’re talking to is injured, who’s also a victim in that moment,” she said.

And as a slew of calls came into this consolidated 911 center, McDonough said the staff had the ability to tie the scenarios together to determine what was really unfolding and what needed to happen next, including finding the gunman.

“The description from one scene was quickly relayed to the people at the next scene and the next scene, which allowed the police officers responding to not waste time trying to backtrack, or disperse units to separate scenes. They had a really good dialogue about where this person was located, what his vehicle looked like and what he looked like,” she said.

And that ultimately led to the gunman being shot by an officer at a different location after he had rammed into the officer’s car.

“We’re a team that goes and addresses the needs of our public. And when we’re involved, it hurts all of us. It touches each of us,” McDonough said.

KOLD reported a task force was formed just over a year ago to address problems when the city consolidated police and fire dispatch under one roof.

Chief Kasmar said they’re continuing to improve the process, which includes expanding the building, but they are in dire need of more dispatchers in the meantime.

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