One person collapsed on the Green. Then another. Then another. More help was needed fast.
Meanwhile, a man went on Facebook Live to announce he was jumping off East Rock. A Cedar Hill building started collapsing. A fire broke out in the Annex.
For a moment it seemed like an entire city was collapsing.
The calls were coming in nonstop to Chris Helland and his colleagues at the Public Service Answering Point (PSAP), the 911 dispatch center on the fourth floor of police headquarters at 1 Union Ave.
And they were keeping the members of Engine 4, the fire squad closest to downtown, racing to keep people safe.
No one had time to stop and reflect on what was happening. But when work finally ended Wednesday night, the crews responding on the ground to New Haven’s most frantic public health emergency in years would not be able to recall a day quite like it.
They were called to work faster, to multitask, more than ever before. And in the end, while they had to deal with 77 overdoses from a bad batch of K2 (and more than a dozen more the next day), no one died.
They kept the city safe.
For the four members of Engine 4, based at the Grand Avenue fire station, it was a trial by ... well, fire.
The supervisor, Ernest Jones, just became a lieutenant. He took over the four-person crew on July 3.
Two of his three firefighters, Nick Andreucci and Jordan White, just graduated from the academy. Andreucci (the son of retired Fire Capt. Steve Andreucci) just started working on Engine 4 two months ago; White, two weeks ago. The driver, Billy DiLegge, is the veteran, on duty two years now.
They were called to the Green when their shift started, and the K2 smokers started dropping to the ground, at around 8 a.m. They ended up staying on the Green almost continually until 6 p.m. They worked with ambulance crews and cops to help 30 different overdose victims to get help, asking people questions, checking their vital signs, lifting them onto stretchers, in some cases pulling them from under benches or chasing them down the Green.
Some of the victims — about half, BiLegge estimated — would grow belligerent once they began reacting to the firefighters’ questions. Then they’d grow confused and zone right back out.
The Engine 4 crew was temporarily back at the Grand Avenue station a little after 2:15 p.m. between overdose calls when another call came in, about a fire at a dumpster rental business on Wheeler Street in the Annex. They raced over and spent a few hours assisting other fire companies there before returning to Grand Avenue — and right back to the overdoses on the Green into the night.
“I’m Concerned For You”
Reflecting Thursday at the firehouse between a second day of not-as-constant calls, Jones said he’d never seen a day like this in his five years with the department. He said he was proud of his crew.
“They beat the expectations,” he said. “These guys showed their professionalism.”
Jones interrupted the interview when a shirtless man in a Chicago Bulls cap stumbled past the fire station. He wandered on Grand Avenue, into traffic. He could barely walk.
Firefighters rushed out. They guided the man to the firehouse entrance.
They brought out a chair. Jones asked the man to sit down.
At first the man wouldn’t. Without raising his voice, speaking slowly, Jones kept asking him to sit.
Surrounded by firefighters, Jones knelt to the pavement. He leaned his face toward the seated man’s. He asked the man’s name, his age.
The man tried to talk. He couldn’t. He looked around. He buried his head in his hand.
Jones kept pressing, without picking up the pace. “I’m concerned for you,” he said.
The man eventually gave his name.
“Any other problems going on today?” Jones continued.
An ambulance arrived. Jones asked the man to let him and his firefighters lift him up onto a stretcher.
Jones patted his side; he told the man he didn’t want to have to spray him to get his attention. He told him he didn’t want to call the police. He wasn’t threatening; he kept his tone even. He explained that if the man didn’t cooperate, he would probably be committed at the hospital for three days. If he cooperated, he could go get examined and treated, and probably released sooner.
Eventually the man got up with the crew’s help. He was placed in the ambulance.
Asked if the man was drunk or high on K2 or heroin, Jones said he had no idea. You can’t make assumptions, he said. Determining the cause of the man’s problem was the next crew’s job. Jones’ job was done; he’d gotten the man help and kept him safe.
While this week’s mass of K2 overdoses was unusual for its numbers and intensity, firefighters deal with zoned-out addicts every day. The way Jones and Engine 4 did outside the station Thursday. It’s not unusual for firefighters to handle 20 overdoses spread out across the city in the course of a day. They focus on the ever-growing zombie parade that the rest of New Haven tunes out until more than 70 people collapse in the center of town in a single day.
When the heat was on Wednesday at the Green, Jones exhibited that same equanimity under fire, observed Assistant Fire Chief Orlando Marcano.
Marcano made a point of checking in on the crews at all the stations at day’s end to check on firefighters’ morale amid the fatigue of handling continual calls, he said. The Engine 4 crew, he said, was going strong, he said. “They were as professional as seasoned officers.”
And Marcano observed that Jones had slipped seamlessly into his new supervisory role, standing back in many cases to let his firefighters do the work while he directed them and made sure the surrounding scene was safe. The department sees great potential in Jones, Marcano said, noting that he earned on his own time higher-level state certification to qualify as a fire instructor.
“He was so calm and collected with his crew,” Marcano said. He tried to compliment Jones about that at day’s end. Jones wasn’t having it. He told Marcano, “I was just doing my job.”
“They Need You”
Over at the 911 PSAP center at 1 Union Ave., dispatcher Chris Helland wasn’t getting time to rest, either. He, too, was racing to stay on top of multiple unfolding crises.
He had come to work expecting not to be on the phones at all. In his 10th year at PSAP, he’s now a trainer. Five minutes into his shift, at 8:05 a.m., he was preparing to teach an upcoming class for fire dispatchers when a supervisor called to him.
“They need you in the room,” he told Helland.
Helland, an enthusiastic narrator of call-dispatch protocol who bears a passing resemblance to the actor George Clooney, settled into the back left corner of the 911 center, where the two fire dispatchers sit. He began fielding calls about overdoses, mostly on the Green. He reviewed the information gathered by the initial call-taker, made sure it was coded right, then directed members of Engine 6 (Dixwell), 9 (Ellsworth Avenue) or 4 to the scene. He coordinated with the AMR ambulance company, rerouted paramedics from one spot to another.
By around 10, after Helland stepped outside for a 15-minute break, the fire department had set up a “Downtown One” paramedic unit on the Green. And the calls were still pouring in. He and his colleagues knew this was no usual day. Helland wouldn’t get another break until 7 p.m., three hours into the second of two shifts he’d work that day.
“You don’t take a break,” he said, “until it’s done.”
Fortunately he had brought in some chicken and rice with potatoes and peppers that a friend had made him, so he could eat lunch while monitoring the six computer screens at his desk.
Helland had worked such nonstop shifts before, during blizzards, during power outages. But this was different, continual distress calls, one after the other. “A little harder,” he said. “It does kind of weigh on you a little bit.” The PSAP workers know to back each other up and help each other relieve stress on days like that, he said. He called the staff a “true family”; dispatchers hang out with each other and hug and cry and support each other’s pregnancies and weddings and deaths of the people they love.
During one of the busiest times on the Green Wednesday, the call came in about the man showing Facebook Live viewers the drop atop East Rock and threatening to jump. (After cops and firefighters searched the area around the summit for hours, the man was found safe back at home.)
An hour later after the initial East Rock call, another came in about a house collapsing on Rock Street in the Cedar Hill neighborhood. (Read about that here.) Then came the fire on Wheeler Street, requiring Helland to communicate not just with firefighters, but with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the Water Pollution Control Authority because of potential hazardous material spills. Helland and his fellow fire dispatcher on duty, Shirley Reyes-Carr, took the lead on specific calls and backed each other up on the others.
When a call came in about a possible heart attack on the far west side of town, Helland had to make a quick decision: Should he dispatch one of the fire department’s two paramedic units? Or would AMR have enough crews available? He made the call, sending the paramedics from Howard Avenue over to the scene.
On The Money
Was it the right call?
Helland rarely finds out the answer.
That’s what makes weeks like this one especially hard for 911 dispatchers, observed Fire Chief John Alston Jr., who praised PSAP’s work during the overdoses.
“When firefighters, police officers, EMTs are out on the scene. They get to respond. They get the information. They make a rescue. They make a save. When they come back, they’re able to off-gas. You have a hang time. You’re able to allow those gases to disperse,” Alston said.
“A dispatcher may take that initial call. Sometimes they never know the outcome, whether the person is rescued or saved or not. And they go into the next emergency call. They take every emergency call we get, but they have no way of knowing the outcome. They go through their own version of stress. They’re dealing with people who are suicidal. They may talk through a parent whose child is incapacitated.”
They play a crucial responding role. They don’t get to see or resolve the crisis. They often don’t even learn the outcome.
Helland said he makes it a point not to learn the outcome. He learned by his third year on the job that “you can’t involve yourself in every individual call. You will burn yourself out.” In his training, he tells other dispatchers to follow his example: “Decide that everyone lived,” or everyone died, he said. Then leave it at that.
Helland finally got off work at midnight. He was too wired to sleep. He went home to Fair Haven, took a walk. Visited with a friend who was awake. Put on a movie, a comedy called Where’s The Money; he could use some laughs.
By 2:30 a.m., five and a half hours until it was time to return to work, he went to sleep. Another long day of helping other people stay alive had finallly come to an end.
Coverage of this week’s drug poisonings on the Green:
• OD Toll Hits 77; Cops Arrest Suspect
• Overdoses Put 911, Engine 4 To The Test
• Synthetic Cannabinoid Key Ingredient In Bad K2 Batch
• Stopping Suicide, Jesus Redeems Himself
• Dozens More Overdose; What’s In That K2?
• Bad K2 Went For Free
• Green Proprietors On Overdoses, Drug Scene: “We Cannot Wait”
• NORML: Legalization Would Have Prevented Overdoses
• “Place Of Despair”?
• Angel, Royce Find Refuge From Green ODs