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Dispatchers win award for keeping cool during potato warehouse fire

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Otter Tail County 911 Dispatchers have been recognized for their outstanding service on the night of the R.D. Offutt Co. potato warehouse fire in Perham.

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At a recent Minnesota Sheriff’s Association Conference in Alexandria, Minn., the Otter Tail County Sheriff’s Office was awarded the Association of Public Communications Officers Award, according to a press release.

Four dispatchers received certificates for their dedication and good work during the fire. They are: Marco Picchiarini, Melissa McCormick, David Cossette and Sandra Brown.

The potato warehouse, located just outside the city of Perham, went up in flames on Jan. 21 and burned through the night. The facility was a total loss. The record-setting fire required assistance from every fire department in Otter Tail County, plus two others. Perham city workers, police, county crews, sheriff’s office staff and other emergency responders also assisted.

The press release states that the incident was extremely dangerous for all emergency responders, and potentially dangerous for the public. The size of the structure, the presence of hazardous materials, the proximity to a major railroad line, and sub-zero temperatures all complicated the response effort.

The dispatchers performed a vital role in the response, minimizing the threats and allowing a successful outcome with no injuries to the public or emergency personnel. They communicated with the Perham Fire Department and initiated mutual aid notifications for the county’s other 17 departments.

Working with directions from Perham Fire Chief Mark Schmidt, the dispatchers contacted the appropriate electrical utility company due to live power lines in the area. They also contacted BNSF railroad in order to request the shutdown of all rail traffic, and the Salvation Army to request appropriate services.

Despite the constant radio traffic and phone calls generated from the ongoing incident, the dispatchers continued to handle numerous other calls in the midst of the fire scene communications. These included 911 calls, administrative calls and law enforcement-related calls throughout the night.

“Thanks to Otter Tail County Dispatchers for everything that night,” wrote Schmidt in a follow-up thank-you letter. “Anything I needed that night, they got it for me. No questions asked, they just made it happen!”

The fire was reported shortly after 4 p.m., and for the first couple of hours there was a flurry of radio traffic between the responding units and the dispatch center. The radio traffic and heightened sense of potential danger lasted for several more hours. It wasn’t until approximately 9 a.m. the following morning that the fire departments cleared the scene.

Dispatchers Missy McCormick and Marco Picchiarini were on duty when the call came in and they handled all the activity related to this major event in a skilled and professional manor, according to the release. Dispatchers Sandy Brown and Dave Cossette came on duty later, taking over with confidence and handling the situation in a professional manner through the conclusion of the event.

Otter Tail County Sheriff Brian Schlueter nominated the dispatchers for the award, stating, “I am very proud of the excellent work done by all of the communications officers (dispatchers) in the 911 Center... Their dedication and service to the hundreds of fire, law enforcement, and EMS responders during this incident helped resolve a potentially life-threatening situation in the very best way – ‘no injuries reported.’”

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