Dispatchers Speak Out

By: Mike Tolbert
By: Mike Tolbert

On October 20 the aircraft was flying from south Walton to DeFuniak Spring on a medical emergency.

The weather was bad with heavy rain. The crew radioed the Walton County dispatchers saying they were turning back. The dispatcher, Richard Grippo, took the chopper off of his computer screen and stopped following it.

Shortly after, the chopper crashed into the bay, but no one knew until the next Airheart crew reported for duty five hours later and noticed the chopper missing.

Grippo was fired. His supervisor, Angelic Austin, has been on leave ever since. Tuesday, Walton County commissioners took up the dispatcher issue.

The county has hired a new 911 training coordinator and reorganization has taken place, but several current and former dispatchers told the commission there needs to be more changes.

They complained about improper training procedures and a hostile working environment at the Emergency Operations Center and pleaded with the board to take action.

Jennifer Tibbs, a former dispatcher, says, "We have all sacrificed our families to help out our work, and if we do not meet these requirements or the hours, we are retaliated against."

Ed Baltzley, Walton EOC Director, says, "This job is not for everyone. If you have special needs, maybe you shouldn't be in that arena because it’s 24-7. There ain’t no running around it. We do not run short. We have to keep people in there to answer the calls, take care of EMS, take care of fire."

The EOC report on the Airheart crash criticized Grippo for not following proper procedures. He says he asked for Airheart training and never received it, but the report also blames Grippo's supervisor, Austin, for not verifying his training.

She has been on administrative leave since the crash. Tuesday, she spoke out for the first time.

Angelic Austin says, "A thousand nightmares later I have gone through my mind thinking what I could have done differently? A jury of my peers would tell you that I did nothing wrong, yet I am being used as [a scapegoat].”

Ed Baltzley, Walton EOC Director, says, “She's not a scapegoat. I've called her numerous occasions to try to get her in with Human Resources."

County commissioners are planning to bring in an independent consultant to take a look at the EOC.


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