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When normal day raged out of control, Johnson Co. emergency management team kept cool during chaos

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OVERLAND PARK, Kan. -- Hidden heroes – Johnson County dispatchers were the first line of defense when Monday’s massive fire erupted in Overland Park.

They answered more than 400 calls during the eight-alarm apartment fire and the house fires that followed.

“We’re just the calm during the storm that nobody ever sees,” said Johnson County fire and EMS dispatcher Mike Babcock.

Babcock said is team is always calm under pressure when chaos ensues.

“You train for it,” he explained. “You just know, this is my job today. I have to focus and do it.”

Babcock said it began as a normal day, but just after 3 p.m. the phones started ringing off the hook.

“When you start getting numerous calls and it’s a large column of black smoke,” he said, “that indicates to us that something big is going down.”

Babcock said in his 21 years as a dispatcher, he’s never seen anything like it.

“Then the embers from the fire were spreading,” he said. “We were getting numerous calls in the neighborhood, ‘My house is on fire! My roof is on fire! So that escalated very quickly to bring in a lot of units.”

It was an escalating situation Operations Manager Josh Lynch said required extra staffing.

“Normally we have five [dispatchers] on staff,” Lynch said. “We increased staffing almost three times. We had 13 that were either in here or on the scene working from the communications side of things.”

Together they answered hundreds of calls in a matter of hours and dispatched nearly 50 fire units to the scene.

“We dispatch for 10 fire departments in Johnson County, as well as Johnson County Med-Act,” Lynch said. “So we’re dispatching units for all of those agencies. We had a number of other agencies that came into help: Lawrence Fire Department, Kansas City, Kan., Kansas City, Mo., all sent units.”

All of their hard work was hidden inside the dispatch center.

“Dispatchers are a vital but sometimes overlooked part of the public safety sector,” Lynch said. “They are the first first responders.”

But their presence was felt at every moment on the scene.

“Everybody worked very well, very cohesive, very communicative to each other,” Babcock said. “It’s just like we needed to do a job, and we did it.”

Lynch said the next step will be debriefing with his staff and other agencies to determine what his dispatchers did well and what they could improve on in future emergencies.

He said 911 dispatch calls from families asking for help will be released to the public on Wednesday.