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‘There when you need us’

Grants Pass dispatchers receive award for response to January hiking incident
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneNaomi LaTourrette works Thursday in the Grants Pass dispatch office.

Naomi LaTourrette was nowhere near Grayback Mountain in January when she helped rescue a hiker who had slid down 1,600 feet at a high rate of speed, breaking bones in the process.

But as a dispatcher on the ground in Grants Pass, LaTourrette was instrumental in making sure valley resident Hillary Trotter got off the rocky terrain and to a hospital.

The happy ending was possible, in part, because LaTourrette and her colleagues kept texting Trotter’s hiking partner to see whether he got the supplies needed for an overnight stay on Grayback when rescue efforts initially failed.

“We let him know that we’re doing everything we can and … that they haven’t been forgotten, obviously,” LaTourrette said. “I’m sure it felt like time was standing still.”

The efforts of LaTourette, Jackie Pulyer, Jamie Farr, Jessica Jones, Katelynn Masters and Amanda Main earned the women the Critical Incident Award for 2021 from the Oregon chapters of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials International and the National Emergency Number Association.

Marci Haack, 911 operations manager for Grants Pass police, noted that the two organizations are the “best known for 911 dispatch” and provide training for professionals like LaTourrette.

Haack praised the six women for performing their duties.

“The citizens of Josephine County are in great hands, and we have a really great team of dispatchers who care about the community and always want to do a good job,” she said.

Incident response

On Jan. 18, around 5:50 p.m., LaTourrette was transferred to a call from Trotter’s hiking partner — a male Trotter did not wish to identify. The man had fallen more than 1,000 feet with Trotter, but unlike her, he was not injured and was able to climb out of the snow and find cell service.

“My job, at first, was to figure out where he was located,” LaTourrette said. “I remember talking to him and asking ... where they parked and started their hike, so we could determine a good starting point if we were going to send people out on the ground.”

She then contacted the Josephine County Sheriff’s Office, which is in charge of search-and-rescue efforts.

LaTourrette would call the man a few more times, but the first call was the longest — over 10 minutes.

“From there on, it was just little updates of what we had in the works,” LaTourrette said. “We were trying to conserve his cellphone battery.”

During those brief calls, she noticed the man’s tone change.

“He sounded very calm, really, for something that happened that was so traumatizing,” LaTourrette said. “There were some times, as the night progressed, that he … was starting to worry more. It always pulls on the heartstrings when you’re not actually able to give anybody any definitive answers.”

LaTourrette’s involvement in the response was limited to determining the hikers’ location, the resources they had and giving them updates. One of those updates was that rescue was not possible that night.

As a workaround, a Coast Guard pararescue swimmer — Petty Officer Trevor Salt — dropped supplies to assist Trotter through the night (according to a Coast Guard spokesman, Salt’s actions resulted in his promotion to petty officer first class and numerous awards, including 2021 Coast Guardsman of the Year and the Armed Services YMCA 2021 Angels of the Battlefield award).

Arrangements were made for the Oregon Army National Guard to rescue the hikers by Blackhawk helicopter the following morning — and they were rescued, albeit after several attempts due to poor weather conditions.

Trotter’s take

Trotter hiked with her companion up Grayback Mountain so far that the two of them were able to see the sign marking the highest point in Josephine County.

“You could see for a three-hour distance in any direction,” she said. “I said, ‘In my opinion, this is the prettiest spot I had ever seen.’”

They decided to head back down the mountain at sunset, but the temperature dropped so quickly that the soft snow that helped them get up became a slick sheet of ice going down.

And what a danger it was.

Her hiking partner slipped and fell before Trotter could do anything. She tried to stay calm and still until she eventually heard her companion, who was stuck temporarily in a hole.

“I realized I wasn’t alone, and it gave me a bit of confidence to keep going,” Trotter said. But then she slipped and quickly knew she was in trouble.

“Every move, I started slipping,” Trotter said. “I used a stick like a pick and started to move forward and all of a sudden slipped.”

Trotter felt like she was going at highway speeds. To Trotter’s hiking partner, it seemed like she “just zipped by.”

A few trees helped break Trotter’s fall down 1,583 feet.

“Once I landed, I could taste blood in my mouth,” Trotter said. “Everything, internally, felt broken. I believed I only had five minutes to live.”

Trotter’s hiking companion assured her he was going to call 911 and build a fire.

“He was not accepting my giving up. He believed it was possible to do something about it,” Trotter said. “It took about two hours until he could get a signal. It felt pretty hopeless until the point when we got a hold of 911.”

It was her hiking partner’s idea to make a fire, which Trotter wasn’t sure was a good idea.

“But when he got hold of the dispatcher, I was saying move the fire away from me, but the dispatcher said, ‘no, keep the fire close to keep her warm,’” Trotter said. “So, we kept it there.”

In addition to giving some directions to the hikers, the dispatchers provided a moral boost.

“Before we spoke to those dispatchers, we felt completely hopeless that we were going to die,” Trotter said. “As soon as he made contact with those dispatchers, that was everything to us. They gave us that hope we were going to survive.”

Her hiking partner would return to Trotter from the place on the mountainside that gave him the best cellular reception to provide updates to her.

“He would come back and tell me every single thing that they would say — and it gave us confidence,” she said.

When Trotter was rescued, a shoulder blade and a bone in her spine were broken, she had blood in her lungs, along with cuts and lacerations. Her chances of survival were good, and she is back at work now.

Trotter had not heard of LaTourrette at the time she was waiting for help, but she thanked her and her co-workers at a party when the dispatchers received the Critical Response Award.

“It was good to meet them and be able to tell them in person how thankful I was to be here, still living my life and totally healed,” Trotter said. “When we look at this whole entire accident, every single person was equally a hero to us.”

Dispatcher duties

Haack was not at work during the incident but spoke to the dispatchers’ work ethic.

“These kinds of calls happen a lot, and there’s not always a supervisor,” she said. “That’s why our training is anywhere from seven to 10 months. As dispatchers, they have to know how to use all the resources they can.”

LaTourrette, a Grants Pass native, has been working in her position since 2004.

“I’ve always had a pretty steady personality … on the outside, not so much the inside,” she said. “So I had to learn how to calm myself on the inside through the years.”

LaTourrette said she was surprised to receive the award, not knowing her boss had submitted the recording that convinced NENA and APCO that she and the five other dispatchers were award-worthy.

“It was kind of neat because we don’t really get recognized very often,” LaTourrette said. “We’re kind of the unseen heroes behind the phone. We’re never seen in person. We get people to the incident, and then from there it’s the people who actually responded.”

She said a lot of people probably don’t think about dispatchers unless they call 911.

“Kind of out of sight, out of mind, but we’re there when you need us, and that’s the important part,” LaTourrette said. “Then we try to make that a good experience, where they feel like they get the help they were looking for.”

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.