Public safety dispatchers were first to learn of Dollar General active shooter

Public Safety Dispatcher Gina Silsby monitors one of seven computer displays on November 15th. (Jim Herr/Cheektowaga Chronicle)
Public Safety Dispatcher Gina Silsby monitors one of seven computer displays on November 15th. (Jim Herr/Cheektowaga Chronicle)

CHEEKTOWAGA – The five public safety dispatchers on duty Tuesday afternoon just started their shift when the first call for help came in through the police department’s non-emergency line.

Four-year veteran Christin Wiech took the call.  “At first he didn’t mention the man with a gun.  It wasn’t for a couple of seconds into it when I was trying to get the location he said there was a guy with a gun and he’s shooting.”

The 911 lines started to light up at Gina Silsby’s fire dispatch station.  It was at that point Wiech thought, “This is something bigger than our regular 911 calls.”

With the preliminary information coming in, Lauren Sieber began to dispatch police officers to the north end of town to the Airport Plaza Dollar General.  Around one minute later, new information was telling dispatchers the gunman was at the Dollar General store on Union Road near French Road.  Still communicating with callers, 45 seconds later she told police officers she heard gunshots in the background of the call.

(Radio transmission edited for time)

With 28-years on the job, Donald Douglas was the senior dispatcher on duty.  That day he was working the police station’s front desk along with dispatcher Richard Nowak.  Attached to the dispatch center Dougless was overhearing the commotion in the other room.

“(Lauren) put out the man with a gun at the Dollar General and then the phones just started ringing non-stop.  Gina picked up, and just from hearing one-sided conversations I knew it was an active shooter,” said Douglas.

He walked into the center and immediately dispatched South Line firefighters to the area of the scene to provide any potential medical services. A South Line assistant chief arrived and described the shooter.

(Radio transmission edited for time)

The group of dispatchers were taking 911 calls from “hysterical” eyewitnesses watching the gunman unload his gun towards the store.

“They were doing the best they could do under the circumstances and we just had to pull the information from them.  It took a few seconds, but we got it,” said Dispatcher Gina Silsby.

Three minutes into the incident, Dispatcher Douglas asked new hire, Lauren Sieber, if she wanted him to take over her police console.  With just 8-months on the job, she said yes and assisted taking incoming calls.  His first radio call to police described the suspect and his actions.

(Radio transmission edited for time)

“For the dispatchers to be able to sort through that information, narrow down the location and get our cars going in the right direction – once again – they’re prepared, they’re well trained and they perform extremely well under stress,” said Chief of Police David Zack.

“The calls that we took, the people were screaming and hysterical. We do get that in the training too, but not to that degree,” said Dispatcher Silsby.

The dispatchers routinely conduct tabletop exercises with police officers and other department staffers calling in portraying hysterical callers. Dispatcher Douglas says that training just kicked in.

Public Safety Dispatcher Christin Wiech receives a phone call on November 15th. (Jim Herr/Cheektowaga Chronicle)
Public Safety Dispatcher Christin Wiech receives a phone call on November 15th. (Jim Herr/Cheektowaga Chronicle)

“It just did, you don’t think about it.  We’ve had tabletop issues at the mall, we’ve had them at schools and it just kicked in.  You didn’t have time to think what you were going to do, you just did it.”

The on-the-job knowledge new dispatcher Lauren Sieber learned was described as “Undescribable amounts.”

“I ended up taking notes and providing myself feedback and asking my other dispatchers what I could have done, what we could have done,” said Dispatcher Sieber.

Information is key in any emergency situation.

“We’re always communicating and we’re always trying to make sure everyone has all the information out there to make sure everyone is safe. Our officers are safe, our residents are safe, that’s what we’re here for,” added Ms. Sieber.

(From L to R) Public Safety Dispatchers Richard Nowak, Lauren Sieber, Donald Douglas, and Gina Silsdy. (Jim Herr/Cheektowaga Chronicle)
(From L to R) Public Safety Dispatchers Richard Nowak, Lauren Sieber, Donald Douglas, and Gina Silsby. (Jim Herr/Cheektowaga Chronicle)

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