By Steve Pope | November 1, 2018
When Michael Steinmiller began his shift on the morning of Oct. 27 he was expecting a rather slow day — “it was a rainy Saturday morning in Pittsburgh. I was expecting parking complaints or neighbors arguing over fallen leaves,” he told a group of reporters Thursday, who had gathered at the Allegheny County Emergency Operations Center to interview some of the 911 workers about their experiences last Saturday.
Mr. Steinmiller, who was responsible for dispatching Pittsburgh police officers from Zones 4 and 5 said, “I heard one of the call takers yell ‘We have an active shooter.'” Multiple calls and reports of 20 to 30 gunshots quickly followed. There was a flurry of activity over the police radio as he attempted to obtain additional information.
Within three minutes he had confirmed that there was indeed an active shooter who had just fired shots in the lobby of the Tree of Life synagogue and at least one person had been shot.
Both he and several of the call takers who were on the phone with callers inside the synagogue were desperately trying to obtain a description of the shooter. They would not be able to until much later.
“This is something we train for but hope it never happens,” he said.
His job that day was made even more difficult because of technology. “I had no way of knowing if [the shooter] was listening. A lot of people have scanners,” he said. “I needed to give information to the officers, but not too much information about where people were hiding in case he was listening.”
Within a very short time the unthinkable happened. He heard a call over the radio, followed by another and another — police officers were getting shot.
“I never want to hear an officer down call — that’s the worst thing you can hear. That day I heard it four times,” he said as he paused for a moment and wiped his eyes.
While Mr. Steinmiller was updating police, a call went out requesting the Pittsburgh police SWAT team respond as quickly as possible. Keith Hennon who was the Shift Commander on duty said additional SWAT units from the South Hills, North Hills, Allegheny County Police Department and the Pennsylvania State Police along with their helicopter were requested.
He said people who were in the synagogue had to decide whether to attempt to an escape or shelter in place. “It seemed like a lot of the people just wanted to hide.”
Hiding is precisely what Barry Werber did. He was one of the first callers to report the shooting. His lifeline was a call taker who had less than three months on the job and was still in training.
Michele Kalinsky, a former customer service representative with Verizon, said she became a call taker because “I enjoy helping people and this is the perfect job to do that.” She stayed on the line with Mr. Werber for 45 minutes reassuring him he would be OK.
As Mr. Werber hid in a dark closet, Ms. Kalinsky suggested that he somehow barricade the door. She said Mr. Werber, who was almost whispering at times, was feeling around in the dark trying to find some way to secure the door.
“He didn’t know what was going on,” she recounted. “I let him know he wasn’t alone.”
Sadly, Melvin Wax, 88, a retired accountant, who was also hiding in the closet was shot and killed when he opened the door.
During the 45 minutes that seemed like mere minutes to her, she said there were periods of silence on the other end of the phone. She said she realized that Mr. Werber was trying to be as quiet as possible, while she continued to listen in an effort to obtain additional information that could possibly assist responders.
“I can’t imagine what he was going through,” she added.
During training, which she said was stressful at times, she would think to herself, “Can I really do this? I proved that day I really could.”
After the incident was over Ms. Kalinsky said she took a brief walk to relieve some of the stress.
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers’s call lasted 56 minutes with call taker Bruce Carlton. During that time he reassured Rabbi Myers that police were on the way.
“I asked him, did he see the gunman. He did not. He only heard the shots. I asked him how many shots he heard. Twenty to 30, coming from the lobby.”
He described Rabbi Myers as being being “very excited, yet he was very precise.” “He told me, ‘I’m hearing additional shots.’ A volley here. A volley there, which I was documenting the whole time,” Mr. Carlton said.
Mr. Carlton told him to “listen and answer my questions and calm down.” He added that after obtaining the information there was “very little talking, we could hear movement in the hallway.”
As Mr. Carlton stayed on the phone with Rabbi Myers he told him to be very silent and make as little movement as possible. While Mr. Carlton did not want him speaking, he said he provided periodic updates to the rabbi, but added “I never told him about any casualties.” I told him what was coming, the state police, the helicopter’s coming, the FBI is coming, just basic reassurances. I kept it to a minimum — I didn’t want my voice to be heard.”
“I distinctly recall him asking me at least five or six times, ‘Should I open my door?’ I kept telling him ‘No.’ ”Even when he heard the police, he asked me once or twice,” he said. “I told him ‘No. Police are in a heightened state. Guns are drawn. They’re looking for an active shooter,'” he said.
On average every year the 911 center handles about 1.2 million calls, and call takers average 80 calls per shift, according to Matt Brown, Chief of Emergency Services. On an average shift there are between 45-65 dispatchers and 12-14 call takers.
Mr. Brown said that everyone that worked that day has sought counseling. A local group has also brought therapy dogs in and some most of the workers have taken time to visit with them.
Steve Pope can be contacted at email@example.com