Tucson-shooting heroes found behind the scenes
Shayl McCormick compartmentalizes her emotions because it is an occupational hazard not to — especially in a high-stress dispatch center where every call may mean a life is at stake. In fact, McCormick’s ability to put aside her emotions was particularly important during the Jan. 8 Tucson shootings that left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) near death and six others dead.
McCormick has worked as a dispatcher and communications specialist for more than 10 years. In her current position as communications shift supervisor, she helps dispatchers at Tucson’s communications center handle calls from law enforcement as well as six different fire agencies, including launching any emergency helicopters for southeast Arizona. It was a Saturday the day of the Tucson shooting, so she was the only shift supervisor on duty. While she was trained to never doubt a caller, she secretly hoped that the reports were exaggerated until in the background of some of the 911 calls dispatchers reported hearing sounds of gunfire and bodies dropping to the ground.
“There’s a piece of you that hopes they are just diving to the ground and weren’t hit,” she said.
Because of the number of 911 calls coming into the dispatch center, McCormick answered calls. With additional information, her team sounded a major medical alarm — meaning three or more ALS patients needed assistance — and then dispatched fire and medical response units. Units were held outside of the scene until it was declared safe by law enforcement. With a gunman loose, they couldn’t take the chance that first responders may become injured and the unable to help, she said. They then alerted the local trauma center about the incident and put three helicopters on standby.
More calls came in reporting victims down, so the scene commander sounded a second alarm major medical and dispatchers sent more units to the scene. The long day continued, and the entire dispatch center worked as a team to get the job done, she said.
It wasn’t until hours later that the emotions of the day began to set in for McCormick. She left work that day at 4 o’clock, an hour after her shift had ended. It was on her way home that she allowed herself to feel the impact of what had occurred.
“I felt sorrow, overwhelming sorrow,” McCormick said. “But there was an amazing beauty that day as our community came together. There were heroes on scene that day. When you see that spirit, you’re just proud of your community and humanity. It gives you hope that even though this tragedy occurred, it’s not going to take control over us.”
Once McCormick got home, she spent a few hours making phone calls to all of the dispatchers on duty during the day. It was important that she was the shoulder of support to those who experienced the trauma and did their best to make sure victims were helped by local first responders. In return, her colleagues were there for her to share emotion over what had occurred.
In all honesty, McCormick still doesn’t feel like the event is over because of the national news, the stress of the day, and the need to review the tapes for training so they can do better if there is ever a next time.
“There’s no playbook for this kind of event,” she said. “You do the best that you can with the resources you have, but there’s nothing automatic.”