Saturday, October 26, 2019

Call Responders Audrey Davidson and Evalyn Casper

This post discusses the shooting that took place at the Pulse Nightclub on June 12, 2016. It contains difficult content, so please do not read on if you feel you may be effected. 

This article and sketch have been posted with the express written permission of the interviewees. Analog Artist Digital World takes the privacy and wishes of individuals very seriously. 

Audrey Davidson stated that, training to become a 911 operator took five weeks followed with on the floor training for three months. Over 1000 hours of training were involved. She was a 911 operator when Pulse happened. Evalyn Casper used to watch Rescue 911 as a child religiously so growing up she thought 911 operators were pretty cool. She knew someone at the sheriffs office and they suggested she apply. Milestones in her career always seem to surrounded big events. She was hired at the sheriffs office on September 11, 2002 one year after the attack on the World Trade Center. She liked that this job allowed her to really apply herself and work her way up. All the training was offered on a platter. She was hungry for everything taking every course offered. She started training others. On June 12, 2017 she was promoted as supervisor on year after the Pulse shooting.

Being a 911operator is a stressful job. The highest stress comes when operators are inundated with a high volume of calls.  Everyone has cell phones now, so that even a back up on I-4 can generate a huge number of calls that can shut them down. An operator is supposed to systematically treat each call the same. When there are so many calls rolling it it becomes difficult. Even if you had 300 calls about the same incident you still have to process it like it is a new call. The next call might be the one that saves a life.

The day before Pulse they worked a similar overnight shift from about, 6:30pm to 6:30am. Evalyn was training a guy, it was his third day, so she was on the 911 desk. She let her trainee know that Saturday nights can get a little crazy. She advised her trainee that if things got fast paced she would move him over so she could process the calls faster. Everyone has a cell phone, and everybody is a witness so they could get flooded with calls. Most calls are verbal arguments and batteries.

Typically with a shooting there is a spurt of calls and usually the police are there within minutes. People see the lights and sirens and the calls stop. Most who call haven't seen the incident as it happened. A 911 Operators questioning is very limited. First get the address, get the suspect description, see if the suspect is still there. The police make sure the scene is clear for fire and rescue to come in.

Audrey said that on June 12, 2016, the phones were ringing off the hook.  The fist call she got was from a guy that said, "There was a shooting at Pulse." Pulse is not in Orange County Sheriff's jurisdiction, it is in Orlando Police Department's jurisdiction. So she transferred him over to Orlando Police. While she was waiting for Orlando Police to pick up, she thought to herself, "Pulse is a really weird place for a shooting. Pulse is just not the kind of place where a shooting would happen." The call rang back into their com center. When OPDs phones get overwhelmed their calls all roll over to the Sheriffs call center. Their lines were overwhelmed so calls sent to them just bounced back with other another Sheriff's operator picking up. The first time she realized it was an active shooter was when a supervisor stood up and told everyone, "There is an active shooter at Pulse." Information needed to be picked up for every call, then move on to the next call. All the calls blurred together, "Do you have any information you can tell us? Can you tell where he is? Can you tell me what he looks like? If they said, no, the caller would be told that Sheriffs were on the way and the operator had to move on to the next call.

One call stood out for Audrey.  A woman was calling from a 7-11 in the heart of OPD jurisdiction. She was calling about a man who was drunk outside of her store. Obviously the operators had bigger problems at the time. Her information was gathered, what he looked like what he was doing. Audrey had to inform her that they were responding to a very large scale incident at the time. She told the woman to lock the door if he was outside. The very next call was from someone inside the bathroom at Pulse. Operators were informed to collect information and then hang up the phone, but she couldn't hang up the phone on someone who was dying in a bathroom. He was someone she could have known. That could have been her, she had been to that nightclub. While talking to him, she started crying. She told him, "I'm sorry this happened to you." She just wanted him to know that someone cared about what happened to him. She couldn't get his name because he was whispering and the shooter was in the bathroom. It was hard. She stayed on the phone until it went silent. The call was maybe a couple off minutes but it felt like an eternity.

911 operators talk to people all the time who are very hysterical and have been in horrible situations, who have been shot, but the reality is they never speak to someone who is dying. Usually it is other people calling in. That call from the Pulse bathroom was difficult. She is glad she got a chance to let him know she cared. But it was the worst day of her life. It was the worst day for many people. It was hard.  Many family members were calling in wanting to know about their loved ones. A list was started of family names and phone numbers so families could be contacted if needed.  But they still didn't know how many people were in the nightclub. About 4am the calls started dying off. On a short break, Evelyn called some friends to make sure they were OK. On the beak it all seemed surreal. It was so big, it was hard to process what had just happened. They were still in this limbo of not knowing the official count. They had to go back to their desks and start taking other calls until the shift was over at 6am.

Evalyn remembered that for two solid hours, no one took a break. There are 15 lines. Nobody got off the phones, no one broke down and left. It was upsetting, but everyone kept processing the calls. Usually when an operator takes a difficult call they can walk off the floor for a bit and regain their composure, but there just wasn't time. All the calls were coming from a particular cell tower on Esther Street. So they all knew that all the calls were related. Evalyn took over for her trainee. The first call was from Duncan Donuts, They claimed that a shot came through their glass or they were hearing shooting. That call was transferred to OPD. All the circuits were busy. The next call was a mom, who was hysterical, wanting to know where her son was. She could not help her. She just wanted to stay on the phone and cry, but she couldn't. The next call was a guy hiding in a closet inside Pulse, he kept saying, "Where are you? Where are you? Where are you?"  The guy Evalyn was speaking to was whispering. He was in the upstairs closet. She told him "Just stay were you are. Don't move, don't move, don't move." What else could she tell him? There is no script.

Many were worried it would take some time to get inside. In reality compared to normal it took them very little time. Afterwards they found out what happened. At the time they didn't have any information to give people. All they could say was, "We are there, we are coming, we are going to help you." There had never been a active shooter in Orlando on that scale.  There is no protocol. Hang ups were not called back which they usually do. There were too many calls. They had to change their gears and triage things themselves. 400 hours of training stipulate that operators should stay on a call in an emergency situation until deputies arrive and are with the caller. But no call that night could be completed in that way. That left operators having to hang up the phone.

While Audrey cried, Evalyn remembered shaking uncontrollably. The adrenaline was running through her. She tried to make herself stop shaking but that made it worse. Despite this, she kept typing, and talking. She was on auto pilot. After their shift was over they had a debriefing. The critical incident stress management team came in and everyone talked about what just happened. It was quiet and surreal. Everyone felt numb. They stressed that it was alright open up to the feelings that would come. They shouldn't mask anything or hide anything. There were people crying. Management also advised them to not watch the news.

When Evalyn got home she texted her mom who was asleep. "You are going to see something on the news, we worked this call, we are OK." Around 7am they fell asleep. When they got up the next day for the next shift, they found out that a lot more people than they thought had been killed in the club. Evalyn woke up to about 27 missed calls. They didn't go in to work the next day. They started seeing just how many people had been shot and the reality sank in. They were angry.

They went to the vigil at Dr Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. It felt good to be out in the community. It was somber, but also it was good to see that everyone was together. There was a feeling of collective support. The shooting directly affected everyone in that we are all Orange County citizens, not everyone was from the LGBT community but they were still there. Muslims, Hispanics, Pastors, all gathered together. It seemed that everyone came and converged into Orlando from other parts of the country. Then the church bells rang 49 times. That was brutal. That was probably the worst feeling listening to that. They went back to work the following Thursday still feeling a bit angry.

There was a lot of pomp and circumstance. It was like a circus. Many wanted to reach out and congratulate them, thank them for their service. Politician, Rick Scott, went to their com center walking around while they were taking calls. Audrey couldn't shake his hand, she was so mad. There was no sense of normalcy. For the longest time they were getting recognition. It felt like they were getting too much attention. While they shook Rick Scott's hand, HR was telling them that they would have to have therapy. They were required to go to 3 sessions of therapy with a psychologist. Its not just about the trauma of the shooting but everything else bubbled to the surface. They gave different ways of coping, like grounding yourself. Mainly they said, "Don't beat yourself up for feeling the way you do."

At the one year remembrance at Lake Eola, they got to hug the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. They saw the Mural that was painted. They sang and then the angels came out and then they announced the names again. It was cool to see the families cheering when their loved one's name was called. They recently stopped by the Pulse temporary memorial and walked around. They cried when they saw the breech in the wall, from the swat team, it was surreal to see how they it was showcased. It suggested that this how lives were saved but this is also how it all ended.

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