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Saving lives, day and night

The Baltimore Sun

Scott McNutt's first six months as a call-taker in the county emergency operations center have been busier than he could have imagined.

The 21-year-old Bel Air resident has assisted in the births of two babies (both in the same week), consoled a man who had attempted suicide, and dispatched police and firefighters to emergencies ranging from fires and car accidents to water main breaks and gas leaks.

None of that includes being injured in a fire last month in his other job.

McNutt works from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., answering 911 calls at the EOC. By day, he switches roles and responds to calls as a volunteer firefighter for the Bel Air company.

The late-night calls to the EOC run the gamut from complaints about a loud party to the panicked voice from an accident scene or a crime in progress. McNutt knows from three years volunteering with the county's busiest fire company the critical role he plays at the EOC.

"If somebody needs help, the first person to call is me," he said. "I'm the person that answers 911. I am on the phone trying to picture what is going on in an emergency."

Ernie Crist, the county's emergency operations chief, called McNutt's role extremely important because it's the first stop in the 911 system.

"Call-takers need to gather accurate information quickly and channel it to the appropriate agency," he said.

McNutt is one of about 100 employees on the EOC staff, about 70 of whom are involved in 911. McNutt prefers the night shift at the EOC because it gives him time to volunteer on fire calls - 1,200 last year, and this year is looking to be as busy. He offered his services to the station, which is located within minutes of his home, soon after graduating from Bel Air High School in 2004.

"It was a long process with paperwork, physical and background checks," he said. "I went through all the hoops, did the training, and now I pretty much live there."

Rich Gardiner, spokesman for Harford's volunteer fire companies, said McNutt "is what every company wants in a firefighter. He learns quickly and is reliable and responsible."

McNutt takes all the classes offered at the station and has gained valuable experience, said Bill Snyder, deputy chief and a co-worker at the EOC.

"His attitude cannot be beat," Snyder said. "Calm is the key to success at both jobs, and he always thinks with a clear mind."

His colleagues at the fire station encouraged McNutt to try for an EOC job. He qualified, took the training classes and began working with a responder on the night shift in November.

"It is usually the quietest shift, but when something does happen, it really blows," McNutt said.

The fire department training has helped prepare him for the job, "especially the part about staying calm," he said.

"If you aren't calm, the caller won't be calm," he said.

Call-takers can quickly influence a person in a state of panic, said Sue Collins, a spokeswoman for the emergency operations center, located in Hickory.

"People will often complain about the questions and just want the ambulance sent," she said. "These call-takers have to be the calming influence and get everything taken care of so everyone else can do their jobs."

McNutt's steady demeanor helped on calls that came during the delivery of two babies within the span of a week.

"It's one thing to see a birth on film in a classroom," he said. "It's different, when you have audio of the real thing."

The first call came from a woman in labor with her first child. After a few questions, McNutt knew the baby would arrive before the ambulance that he had already dispatched. He kept the woman on the line, reassuring her that help was on the way. Following emergency protocols, he told her to lie on the floor and take deep breaths.

"In about five minutes, I heard the baby crying," he said. "It was a girl, and I congratulated the mother. That was the coolest part for me, knowing the mother delivered the baby while on the phone with me."

Only a few nights later, he heard from an expectant father.

"This was a first-timer," McNutt said. "He was calm, she wasn't. I ran him through what he needed to do."

The healthy baby girl arrived a few minutes before the ambulance crew.

"I disconnect once the ambulance comes," he said. "It's funny, though, you want to know how it all turns out."

In any given year, the EOC handles only a handful of births-in-progress, Crist said.

"What's amazing is Scott handled two in a week," he said.

While night work frees up his days, McNutt does not use the time to catch up on sleep. The home he shares with his parents and younger brother is within blocks of the fire station. If the siren sounds, McNutt is there within minutes.

Before any siren sounded, he raced across the street to a neighbor's burning home last month. Once he made sure no one was in the home, he headed for the station and rode back to the fire in gear, on a truck with other firefighters.

And, at a multiple-alarm apartment fire in Forest Hill on Mother's Day, he was one of four firefighters attacking the blaze in a top-floor unit. They were called out of the building as the roof started to cave in. Charred debris burned his neck and resulted in a brief stay at the burn center at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore. He said he was "so pumped" about fighting the blaze that he didn't realize he had been hurt.

Ultimately, McNutt has set his sights on a paid firefighter position in a metropolitan area such as Baltimore, Washington or New York City. Along with about 1,500 other hopefuls, he took the written test for Baltimore's firefighter candidates last month. Earlier, he waited 13 hours in line to hand in an application to the D.C. department.

For now, McNutt is headed for the EOC's "dispatcher academy" this fall. He will take classes in dispatch, emergency management and homeland security, Crist said.

The young man, who spent his boyhood traipsing after firetrucks on his bike, will continue fielding emergency calls and volunteering.

"When I was a kid, they pretty much had to kick me out of the firehouse; I wouldn't leave," he said. "It's really another family. You meet new people, gain a lot of experience and all your training is free. It has already helped me find a job I really like."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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