‘I never want to hear that again:’ Allegheny County 9-1-1 operators recount the first Tree of Life shooting calls

The first call came in from Rabbi Jeffrey Myers at 9:54 a.m. Saturday.

Lexi Belculfine / The Incline
MJ Slaby

Bruce Carlton and Michael Steinmiller were nearly halfway through their Saturday shift at the Allegheny County 9-1-1 Center when the first call came in from Tree of Life.

At 9:54 a.m., Carlton answered a call from Rabbi Jeffrey Myers.

“He was very hurried and out of breath … but he told me everything he needed to say,” Carlton, a call taker, said.

Myers told him his name.

He was at Tree of Life synagogue.

There was an active shooter.

Myers heard at least 20 to 30 shots coming from the lobby.

Carlton started typing and getting more details.  A former police officer and EMT, his determination kicked in. At the time, he said, it felt like forever to get the call to dispatch. He later learned it was 20 seconds, well under the average of 90 seconds to 2 minutes.

“I don’t recall typing on my part,” he said Thursday at a press availability in Point Breeze at the county Department of Emergency Services.

On Saturday, Steinmiller, a dispatcher, was working in the same room as Carlton when a call popped up on his screen. He could hear co-workers yelling about an active shooter when he opened that very call on his screen. He sent officers immediately.

Later, he heard his worst nightmare: “An officer had been shot.”

He heard that four times Saturday.

“I never want to hear that again,” he said Thursday.

Meanwhile, Carlton was still on the phone with Myers, who said he couldn’t see the gunman. Carlton told him to go back as far as he could. The call taker talked when he felt it was safe to talk to Myers and give him updates about where police were, but also tried to listen, too.

“From where he was at, it was surprisingly quiet,” said Carlton, who didn’t remember if he heard shots.

They stayed on the phone for 56 minutes.

As Steinmiller relayed information to emergency responders, he tried to stay calm and take deep breaths. He kept in mind what he could and couldn’t share — not knowing if the gunman was listening to the scanner.

His voice guided the responding officers, but he and others stressed that it was a team effort inside the 9-1-1 center. “We’re the voice that’s often heard, never seen.”

‘Silent heroes’

In the days since the Tree of Life shooting that left 11 people dead and six injured, including four police officers responding to the scene, officials have praised the response of local officers who ran toward danger.

Accused gunman Robert Bowers, 46, of Baldwin was taken into custody on scene, which Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich said prevented a much worse situation. Bowers this morning pleaded not guilty to 44 federal charges, including hate crimes.  

Judy Heilmann, a center shift commander, said Thursday that the 9-1-1 staff did a phenomenal job, kicking into high gear and making sure everything was done.

“They are certainly the silent heroes,” said Matt Brown, chief of Allegheny County Emergency Services.

Heilmann said she was scheduled to work the afternoon shift on Saturday, but came in early. As a member of the local Critical Incident Stress Management team, she wanted to be there to help. CISM volunteers include those working in dispatch, EMS, fire, law enforcement, nursing and behavioral health and organize response groups to help emergency workers care for themselves following traumatic incidents.

When she got there around noon, she said some staff wanted to talk right away. Others were crying. Others wanted to keep working.  She moved around the room, making sure that people had what they needed, like water.

Just about everyone who worked Saturday sought counseling either that day or the day after, Brown said, adding that resources and other services are being made available. Heilmann hopes to start a peer team similar to CISM at the 9-1-1 center for in-house support.

Steinmiller praised those resources and the support he got from friends and family. He said he doesn’t know what’s worse — being one of the first to hear something like he was, or one of the first to see it like the officers on scene. And he doesn’t want to know.

On Monday, two days after the call, he went to Tree of Life. He’d driven past it before, but this time he stopped. He saw the community outpouring of love through flowers and signs.

“That helped.”