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Local dispatchers & fire agenices handle 'controlled chaos' with multiple emergencies

Firefighters respond to a fire at a home on Thoma Street in Reno on Saturday, July 29, 2017 (SBG)

The Emergency Dispatch Center took 465,550 calls for service in 2016 in the city of Reno and Washoe County. For the majority of those calls, someone needed help.

"Dispatchers have a tough, challenging job. It doesn't matter if they are working in the call-taking position, law enforcement position, law or fire position, they are handling more than one thing at a time," says Dispatch Manager Dena Avansino.

Avansino says at any given time there are three or more people answering 911 calls at dispatch.

In just seconds, they enter information into a computer that gets routed to other dispatchers sitting just feet away, ready to contact Reno Fire, Reno Police or REMSA.

"We do our best to have controlled chaos, because that's what it is; like I said, you never know what you are going to get," said Avansino.

As the community has seen this past summer, there can be response needs all over the jurisdiction, all at once.

Reno Division Chief Bob Leighton says there are no typical days.

"We could have several wildfires, structure fires, water rescues, hazmat calls, at any moment we could have an earthquake so we have to prepare for any type of incident that could occur," he said.

With limited resources and sometimes limitless activity, it's a real-life game of preparing, processing and prioritizing.

In the case of a large disaster or major fire, ground zero for Reno Fire is the 4th floor of Reno City Hall. It's where division chiefs figure out how to backfill staff when crews are being called out all over the city.

"They put a page out that goes to the entire department and then people call back in and say, 'I'm available. Where do you need me?'"

Reno Fire has 213 fire fighters, with 63 on duty every day, but there have been times when more than 50 people have been called back to work.

During the Woodchuck Fire last week, that same drill took place again, calling off duty firefighters back on because homes were threatened.

On most days, dispatchers send out two fire engines and two brush trucks for a wildfire, but if a red flag warning is in effect, a lightening dispatch plan scales back the initial response until the first unit can "size up" the situation.

The department knows they might need engines to go to multiple spots.

"Instead of having four units go to each incident, we will have one unit go and see what type of additional resources we need," Leighton said.

Dispatchers have to make quick judgement calls too. Extra resources are sent at the request of the battalion chief if people or property are threatened.

Leighton says it's a constant challenge to make sure all 14 fire stations in Reno remain staffed.

"Even though we may have a large emergency or event going on for fire, people in the community are still going to have medical emergencies, vehicle crashes, we have to take all that information and still be able to send someone to handle it," Avansino said.

When Reno Fire officials feel like there's not enough coverage for the city to be safe, mutual aid comes into play.

Reno Fire will ask for help from Truckee Meadows, Sparks, Carson City, Storey County or Incline Village.

If an incident gets more serious than what those jurisdictions can handle, the Nevada Division of Emergency Management gets involved and can recruit even more resources.

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