Pasco dispatchers return from relief effort in Panhandle

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A group of Pasco County 911 dispatchers returned home Thursday after spending about a week in the Florida Panhandle, helping answer emergency calls after Hurricane Michael devastated the area.

After a 13-hour drive and a quick training course, the dispatchers went to work at the Bay County Emergency Operations Center.

"We were there to help give their 911 operators a break," said Jacob Burke.

Many of the Bay County dispatchers hadn't heard from their families since the hurricane passed through.

"Most of them hadn't even heard from their families. They had no idea where they were. They had no idea how their homes were," said Linda Allan, who was a dispatcher in Kansas City before working in New Port Richey. "This is the worst thing I have ever seen and I have seen F-5 tornado damage."

"These people hadn't heard from their families and we were going to relieve some of that pressure for them and help them through those times," added Kelly Heinicke. "There was a dispatcher that told her deputy husband over the radio that their house was gone. There was a woman who, her and her husband, lost everything. One of the women that I spoke to, she was on the phone with her husband as her roof blew off and she didn't know for three days if he was okay. But she stayed and she worked and she helped her community."

The Pasco dispatchers worked 12-hour overnight shifts during their time in Bay County.

"The fear, the frustration, it was every call," said Allan.

"The phones are just ringing and ringing and the welfare checks are -- stacks of them, just 'we haven't heard from our family,'" Heinicke described, adding in some cases it was too dangerous to send emergency responders. "They had already gone through a disaster and now you're telling them that we're not able to send help to them."

Emergency officials have said this is always a possibility when people ignore orders to evacuate. 

The emergency operators from Pasco, meanwhile, said they were just glad they could lend a hand.

"For them to have an hour to decompress, to get their thoughts together, to try to reach out to their families was the least that we could do," Heinicke said. "If nothing else, we had a part in helping. We had a little part in relieving some of the stress that they're under."