Emergency services personnel for Allegheny County spent last Saturday morning responding to routine police calls, such as complaints about parking or residents blowing leaves into neighbors’ yards.
Then, just before 10 a.m., people inside Squirrel Hill’s Tree of Life Synagogue dialed 911 to tell them a gunman had entered the building.
The first call came from a rabbi. Another soon followed from a congregant named Barry Werber.
He got connected to Michele Kalinsky, a telecommunicator with Allegheny County Emergency Services. She asked his name and location and for details about what was taking place.
As they spoke, she entered Werber’s information into the computer to alert dispatchers.
“He had gone into the basement of the building and ran into a storage room,” she said. “It was dark. He couldn’t describe it. He didn’t see anything, didn’t know how large it was. We asked if he could feel around, and what he was able to feel.”
All the while, she tried to keep Werber calm.
“When he explained his fears and what was going on, I let him know that he wasn’t alone,” she said. “I would be there with him, and we would get through it."
Kalinsky on Thursday recounted her experience while sitting in the situation room inside the county’s emergency services headquarters in the East End. It’s where representatives from local, state and federal agencies convened Saturday to coordinate the response to the mass shooting.
Kalinsky offered Werber guidance while feeding his updates to dispatchers, who got to work right away.
“The complainant says they have an active shooter in the building,” a dispatcher said over the police scanner. “A second call says they, uh, are being attacked.”
Michael Steinmiller was one of the voices calling police to the scene.
“You can train until you’re blue in the face for anything in life, and you hope that this day never comes,” he said.
When it does, dispatchers jump into action and relay key information to officers on the ground, he said.
A recording of Allegheny County dispatchers exists on the website Broadcastify, which airs live feeds from emergency dispatchers throughout the country. Steinmiller said he had to give officers enough details to respond to the shooter without compromising the safety of those inside the synagogue.
“I had to be conscious that he may be listening also, so to give out all this information of where they’re particularly hiding may not have been the safest thing to do,” he said.
Meanwhile, word came that an officer had been shot.
“It’s just one of the worst things you could hear, and I heard it four times that day,” Steinmiller said.
Eleven people were killed Saturday morning and six others injured, including four police officers. Many of the emergency services personnel have spoken to counselors and spent time with therapy dogs.
And yet, that day, they got back to work. Kalinsky, like many on duty Saturday, still had several hours left in her shift.
“You try not thinking about it because you can’t let that call impact another emergency that might come through,” she said. “So I took a walk briefly.”
Since then, she’s thought a lot about Barry Werber and the 44 minutes they spent on the phone. She hopes to meet him.
“I’ve prayed for him,” she said. “But maybe I can pray with him in person some day.”
While many emergency services employees at work Saturday have had extensive experience responding to crises, Kalinsky has not.
She spent the past 20 years in customer service, and this is just her fifth week training to handle 911 calls.
“It’s challenging,” she said, explaining that while training, she's listened to mock calls and wondered if she can really handle the job. “Well, when it came down to it, I guess I proved to myself I could.”