Sonoma County dispatcher named best in the nation following 2017 North Bay firestorm

A Sonoma County dispatcher has been named the best in the nation.

Katerine McNulty, 37, was honored for her performance and leadership during the North Bay firestorm of 2017.

"Everything that was being thrown at us was a brand new curve ball," McNulty told KTVU, at Redcom, the Redwood Empire Dispatch Communications Authority, where she is a supervisor.

Redcom is located at the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department in Santa Rosa.

Sheriff's dispatchers take law enforcement calls; Redcom handles fire and ambulance needs.

"We started grasping at straws and just trying to walk the caller through every scenario to try to get them out," said McNulty, who goes by KT, and has been a dispatcher for 17 years, since American Medical Response launched Redcom.

The night of October 8 was calm, until the wind-driven fires began ravaging entire neighborhoods, lighting up the 911 switchboards.

Evacuation alerts came late, or not at all, so many people in the fire zones woke up to flames and panic.

"I'm surrounded by a wall of fire and I have nowhere to go," recounted McNulty, of the hundreds of calls that quickly accumulated.

With trees down and streets blocked, McNulty and her team had to improvise.

"We would ask if they had a chain saw, or does their neighbor have a chain saw, anything we could think of to get them out of harms way."

In the first 8 hours, 800 separate emergency incidents were logged, filling dispatcher's screens and overloading their ability to answer.

By the time 24 hours had passed, the number of incidents had grown to 1,300, with 4,000 inbound and outbound calls.

There were moments, even the second-story dispatch center, seemed in the path of fire.

"All of a sudden we looked up and you could see the flames coming and a big red glow outside our window."

That glow was the Doubletree Hotel and Journey's End Mobile Park burning to the ground.

With law enforcement and fire departments swamped with rescues, the hardest part for dispatchers was telling people there were no engines to send them.

"That's never happened before in our history," said McNulty. "It's always, 'help is on the way,' but that night, it was 'you're on your own.'"

Now, a shimmering trophy sits at McNulty's workstation, bestowed on her April 24 in Baltimore, by the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch.

McNulty attended the event, unaware she was being honored, and was completely surprised.

"It wasn't just me that night, it was my whole team," she said, sharing the distinction with colleagues.

"They showed up in the middle of the night and they stayed for two weeks, you couldn't kick one of them out of the chair if you tried," recalled McNulty.

From the ordeal, has come a protocol, scripted like other emergency situations, so dispatchers everywhere can better respond to fire.

Among the guidance they might offer: roll up your car windows, find a clearing, or shelter in the lowest spot on your property.

"As a last-ditch effort, can you dig a hole, or a trench, and bury yourself?" posed McNulty, another tip that is now part of the protocol.

On the night of the fire, the Redcom dispatchers were learning from each other in an adhoc fashion.

Now their experience will enable other dispatchers to be resourceful at saving lives.

"A woman asked me, 'should I get in the pool?' and I said yes, if that's the safest place for you to be now, get in the pool," recounted McNulty.

That woman and her husband survived.

The dispatchers know some of the people they spoke to, did not.

"It's horrible and it is hard to process," said McNulty, "but we also know how many people we did help, and we are proud and grateful for everything we could accomplish."