First responders take early initiative in dangerous weather

Emergency workers brave the treacherous conditions many citizens try to avoid.
Sunday, December 3, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:43 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

As many Columbians enjoyed a day off Friday, the city’s first responders dug out their cars, waited for rides or slept at work.

Even as city and county officials advised people to stay home and off the roads Friday, police officers, firefighters, emergency medical services personnel and 911 dispatchers had to get to work and deal with the aftermath of the snowstorm.

Columbia Police Sgt. Lloyd Simons said knowing the storm was on its way helped emergency services prepare.

“We weren’t in a panic situation because we knew it was coming,” Simons said.

Officers either braved the roads themselves or — like Simons, who lives in Ashland — got picked up from a city four-wheel-drive vehicle.

Once on the job Friday, first responders focused on dealing with traffic congestion and making sure they could respond to high-priority calls despite dangerous roads conditions.

“We did have some patrol cars get stuck, but we just sent another officer,” Simons said. “We do the best we can with response time. Overall, we were real successful.”

A few ambulances got stuck in the snow, said Chuck Mastalski, the day shift supervisor for Public Safety Joint Communications, the 911 dispatch center for Columbia and Boone County. City wreckers freed the ambulances while fire trucks and other ambulances responded to the calls in time, he said.

Neither the police nor the dispatch center needed to call in extra employees. Traffic patrol officers focused on responding to calls because of the lack of normal traffic and speeding violations. For minor traffic accidents, officers could issue a delayed accident report, meaning they checked that both drivers had valid licenses and gave them forms to mail. Then they could move on to more pressing calls sooner.

The dispatch center prepared for the storm Thursday evening. Dispatchers on the 3 to 11 p.m. shift brought extra clothes so they could stay overnight. They slept on cots in one of the center’s offices.

After 25 years as a dispatcher, Mastalski said braving the roads was more stressful than dealing with higher call volumes.

“The stress level increases as the call volume increases,” Mastalski said. “But probably the biggest thing is worrying about getting into work and getting back home. I’m not helping anyone if I’m stuck on the roads.”

Call volume was high Friday, mostly with traffic-related calls including several accidents on Interstate 70 and U.S. 63, Mastalski said.

“But we also had to dispatch as normal, and we had the usual amount of medical emergencies,” he said.

As for working when many others have the day off, Mastalski said it just comes with the job.

“(The snow storm) is one of those things that will eventually happen, and you just have to deal with it and put your faith in those around you to do their jobs,” he said.

Simons said that even though his job often involves working when others are not, such as weekends and holidays, it was tough to go to work Friday because his three children were home.

“It’s tough because they’re having fun, and you want to be there,” he said. “But I knew I’d be working this weekend. Most of us chose this job and enjoy this line of work.”

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