El Paso Times Story About 911 – Aug 3

From El Paso Times. Published on July 30, 2020

Emergency call taker Bernardette Falcon and fire dispatcher Jacqueline Castro clocked in sometime before 6:30 a.m. for the day shift.

No radio traffic was coming in, so Castro and her coworkers walked around, got an extra cup of coffee from the cafeteria and talked about how slow that Saturday morning was. 

At 10:39 a.m., the first call came in.

“911. What’s your emergency?” Falcon said.

“It’s at Walmart. There’s an active shooter. It’s a shooter. You have to send someone,” she recalled a female voice saying hysterically on the other side of the line.

It took Falcon a second to register what the person on the line was saying. She didn’t really believe something that atrocious was happening that day of Aug. 3 in El Paso, Texas.

Then she heard gun fire in the background.

First, she had to make sure the caller was safe. She was inside a vehicle at the parking lot as the shooter made his way to the store. Now, she needed the location.

Looking back to that first call, Falcon believes not everyone would have been willing to stay longer at the shooting scene and on the line with her to give her so many details about the shooter. 

She got a physical description, what the alleged shooter was wearing and the type of gun he carried.

“I would like to thank that first caller,” Falcon said. “She chose to call, chose to stay on the line, she made a difference and not many people would have.”

Within seconds, the call takers around Falcon started to get more calls. She could hear them telling people to find shelter, to get out if they could. People outside of Walmart called wanting to know if their family members made it out. 

Falcon took calls until noon. Her job as a public safety telecommunicator is to be the first point of contact with the public. She talks to them and gets the necessary information. From there, she makes that available for police and fire dispatchers to send in the necessary units to the scene.

That day, Castro was assigned the emergency medical service channel. Her first thought was that it wasn’t an active shooter.

The Walmart near Cielo Vista Mall is one of the busiest in the country. Probably it was a one-shot incident and the reason for so many calls was that multiple witnesses were calling to report.

But then it was call after call. A screen in front of her showed a queue with the number of active and pending calls. All she could hear were multiple voices drowning the call floor with questions.

“Where? Who got shot? Who was injured? How many got shot?”

Then she looked up to see the queue with 10 pending calls. Then it was 11, then 15 and it kept adding up. 

At this point, all call takers were busy and she had stopped looking at the queue. Instead, she looked at another screen that showed information of the 911 calls. The screen read “Public safety communicator can hear gunshots in the background.”

“I realized it wasn’t just a shooting, but it was also still going on,” Castro said.

In that moment it felt like two hours of complete chaos. Looking back, the three telecommunicators believe they did everything they could that dreadful morning when a man with an AK-47 gun drove close to 600 miles, came to Walmart and killed 23 and wounded dozens more.

Inside all of the turmoil at the El Paso Regional Communications Center by Railroad Drive in the Northeast, there was semblance of organization and teamwork that aided the first responders at the scene more than 10 miles away from them.

Police dispatcher Melissa Gamez came in that day around 10:25 a.m. for overtime. She was assigned the Northeast area for that shift. She greeted her coworkers and asked what they were all getting for lunch that day.

She sat down, put on her headset, plugged in and was ready for a shift that would have ended at 11 p.m.

As soon as the calls started coming in, all Gamez could hear Falcon saying was “Which Walmart?”

She looked at her two coworkers. One was in charge of the Pebble Hills area and the other of the West side. She knew it was going to be either one of them dispatching police units to the scene. Then Pebble Hills got the call.

Gamez wasn’t assigned to dispatch the first responders to Walmart, but she still had her channel and the Northeast area to take care of. In the background, she could hear the Pebble Hills dispatcher handling the hectic radio traffic in her channel.

“She did an excellent job,” said Gamez who has worked as a police dispatcher for 24 years. “It’s really hard to sit there and go through the motions and not break down on the channel. You can break down afterwards but not on the chat because you have to be there for the officers.”

Television screens were set up around the call floor with national news from Fox News and CNN. Gamez was used to seeing breaking news of active shooters anywhere else in the country.

“It’s always someplace else,” Gamez said. “This time it was us.”

Gamez and her coworkers ended up dispatching units from all over El Paso to the Walmart close to Cielo Vista Mall.

On the other side of the call floor, Castro took calls and dispatched the initial EMS units to the scene at Walmart. People started helping each other. Another dispatcher sent in more ambulances as Castro picked up an incoming call. 

“They kept requesting more units. ‘Send me one more, two more.’ It got to the point that we didn’t wait for them to ask,” the 27-year-old El Pasoan said.

At one point those calls stopped coming to her and were now assigned to the mass casualty incident department. But Castro was still on the clock and had to handle other emergencies in the city.

The screen in front of her kept adding more casualties, more patients and more locations inside of Walmart.

Then her channel started to get busy but Castro had no ambulances to call in for the rest of El Paso. She began to call private ambulances to help them out.

At the call taker section, telecommunicators keep getting calls non-stop.

In some of these calls, Falcon found moments of relief when she heard people telling her they got out of the store and were safe. An employee called from a locked room with 50 more people that were able to keep safe.

She got a call from a woman saying she was outside the pharmacy trying to get in but was locked out by people inside sheltering in place.

“I wish I could have told her to let them know that (the shooter is) not there and to let her in but it’s not up to me to tell her to do that because I’m not there,” Falcon said. “I can’t assess the situation.”

The 32-year-old telecommunicator got another call from the pharmacist saying that a woman is outside and she doesn’t know if they should let her in. Again, she has to tell her to do whatever she believed was safe for her and for the staff. 

“Suddenly I hear the door opening and they let her in,” Falcon said.

Other callers were not so fortunate.

Falcon remembers another call from a woman whose husband was bleeding from a gunshot wound. The caller refused to leave him and look for shelter. At that point, Falcon could only tell her how to help her husband. 

“Find the wound. Apply pressure. Keep pressure,” Falcon said and gathered the necessary information hoping for a EMS unit to get to them in time. She then closed the call and moved on to the next one.

To this day, Falcon doesn’t know who the husband was or if he was one of the victims that passed.

“It’s difficult to hear those outcries and those pleads for help when you’re nothing more than a person on the other side of the line,” Falcon said.

“My fellow first responders, they do get a semblance of closure. They know that what they did or didn’t made a difference. As a call taker you don’t get that.”

Castro lives close to Cielo Vista Mall, so she goes to that Walmart for groceries. She had walked those aisles so many times that she knows the layout very well.

She could hear the call takers describing the different areas the wounded were, including the automobile area, grocery and pharmacy.

In her head, red dots lit up on a map for every specific location she heard the call takers mentioning.

“I’m picturing everything because I know that Walmart. So I think if something stuck with me it was knowing where the bodies were.” said Castro.

Next to her was her purse with her cellphone vibrating non-stop. All she could think was her parents that usually go to that Walmart Saturday mornings. She is tied to her desk and she can’t use her personal phone while she’s on the channel.

“That’s when it hit how real it was,” Castro said. “I just wanted to go home and make sure that my parents were okay and hoping that no one I knew was there.”

For Castro, it was as if time had stopped after that 10:39 call. The floor had become so busy with constant calls that she barely got a restroom break until almost 1 p.m.when someone from the next shift came in early.

She went to the restroom and called her parents. They were okay.

“Is it real,” they asked.

“Yes, it’s real,” Castro said. “So stay home.”

It was around 2 p.m. when the calls stopped coming in and the day shift was over.

Castro was still in a haze. It was a denial she had built up inside of her to allow her to keep working.

Interstate 10 was closed so Castro had to take the long way home. She drove down Hawkins Street and heard the helicopters flying over. At the intersection of Hawkins and Viscount, she saw police units blocking the entrance to Cielo Vista Mall.

That was when she realized what had happened to her city and the first time she allowed herself to cry.

When she got home she saw her parents right away. They start asking her questions and that’s when she found out the alleged shooter had been arrested.

Back at the call floor, all she knew was that a suspect had been taken into custody but nothing official had been said by her supervisors or the fire chief. 

“It felt like a combination of anger for what he had done,” Castro said. “But at the same time it was a relief knowing that it was over.”

Her parents continued watching the news with reporters outside of Walmart recounting the number of wounded and the official death count. Castro didn’t want to know more about it.

“I didn’t want to wake up the next day and find out it was someone I knew. I didn’t really want to think about it,” Castro said. She went to bed and slept until the next morning when she had to go back to work.

Castro hasn’t gone back to that Walmart. Every time she hears a call taker asking about a shooting incident, her first response is to look up to the queue and see how many calls are pending hoping to see the number staying low. 

“The priority is always the units and the public,” Castro said. “You want to make sure that the units and the public is taken care of so it’s not about you anymore.”

It takes one year to become a public safety telecommunicator and Falcon is grateful for her extensive training.

“You learn to leave yourself, your feelings and your emotions out of the equation,” Falcon said. “At that point you’re there to bring people the help that they need. You deal with your adrenaline, your fear, your anger and your distress after the call.”

Still, Falcon, Castro and Gamez believe no training would have ever prepared them for the events of August 3 even in a line of work where anything can happen and any call can take a drastic turn.

“You can get all the classroom training that they can possibly give you,” Castro said. “But you don’t really get the experience until you’re on the job and you get that type of situation.”

And for Falcon, the calls she received that day felt different. It was a direct attack to her community.

At home, Falcon was restless and felt she still needed to do more, so she went out to donate blood.

“But El Paso, they beat me to it,” Falcon said. “The centers were so full they turned me away.”

Falcon felt grateful for the turnout. The city went out to do their part and donate blood.

“I didn’t have to be the one to do it all,” Falcon said. “The community had gathered as one to help.”

For weeks people sent in gifts to the Regional Communication Center from coffee makers, care packages, blankets and food.

At one of the entrances of the call floor, there’s a frame with thank you notes, badges and patches from police and fire departments from other counties and states that sent in gifts as well.

Gamez has worked at the call center since 1997. She wanted to be a police officer first, but her mother strongly opposed. She decided to become a police dispatcher instead.

She’s set to retire in three years, but she’s not sure if that is going to happen.

“I’m really good at my job and I love it. I have a passion for it and I have a passion for the officers,” Gamez said. “My goal is to make sure everybody gets home safe.”