By Ms. Carol E. VernonFebruary 5, 2018
The words, "one ringy-dingy, two ringy-dingy," spoken in a nasally voice evoked laugher in the popular 70s sitcom starting Lily Tomlin, but the sound of a ringing phone in the Sonoma Recovery Field Office is nothing to laugh about.
Every day for 12 hours, Heidi Simko, Jacqui Zink, Amber Machado and Rawn "RJ" Jones pick up the ringing phone knowing on the other side of the call is a resident from one of the four counties, Sonoma, Lake, Napa or Mendocino, who lost part or all of their homes in the October 2017, Northern California wildfires.
These exceptional people and several other USACE staff who have already finished their deployments and returned home volunteered to be the RFO's first line of communications. They listen to complaints, answer questions, provide support and just as important, they are a vital link between the community and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps, under the direction of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is overseeing the fire-related debris removal mission.
"They are our public interface who deal with the survivors' concerns and issues as part of the debris removal mission," Col. Eric McFadden, commander Sonoma RFO, said. "They are an integral part of our mission's success."
I had the opportunity to spend some time in the call center and received a first-hand view of the importance of their role.
Simko has been at the call center for about 20 days. She left behind a son who still lives with her, a boyfriend, a three-legged Yorkie, a one-eyed cat, two snakes -- one that she found as a baby and hand fed -- and another dog that is deaf and blind. (I could not make this up.) During her time at the call center, she handles 25 to 30 incoming calls, makes 15 to 20 call outs and responds to about 20 messages daily. Each call brings its own concerns and challenges.
"People calling us have already gone through a terrible ordeal, but if I can give them someone to express their frustration to or simply answer a question, then I've done my part, even in the smallest sense of the word, to help them rebuild their lives, " Simko said. "That's why I volunteered."
Watching Simko answer calls, her voice is calming and I could see and hear her concern for each caller. It is obvious to anyone observing, she truly understands how important her interaction is with each caller.
"I've never deployed for disaster relief before," Simko said. "This time, it was in my backyard and I wanted to be a part of something big that would help people to rebuild their lives."
Amber Machado has been in the call center the longest at 41 days. In her regular life, she is a park ranger. She left her wife and eight-year-old daughter behind to assist in this mission.
"They were so upset when I extended for this mission, so I got in a little bit of trouble," Machado said with a chuckle. "You get so attached to the mission, helping people and the awesome people I've met here, that it was worth them being a little upset. In the end, they know me, so they understand."
As I listen to Machado talk about her family and her work at the call center, I can understand why her family supports her being away. Her passion comes through as she talks and in her smile. As a park ranger, she interacts with the public on a daily basis and you only have to sit down with her for a few minutes to realize, she has and tells a great story. Working at the RFO call center, she has added to those stories.
"A lady called me upset because a 200-year-old burnt, tree was left on her property," Machado said. "After listening to her story about the importance of the tree to her family and explaining the tree was ineligible material, I suggested she repurpose the tree and use it as part of the rebuild. She loved the idea and was then thankful the treasured tree was left."
Since the call center stood up on November 17, 2017, the team has answered thousands of calls from property owners.
Machado, Simko and the other members of the call center are looking forward to their last call, because that will mean the region is well on its way to recovering from the wildfires.
"I want to go home to my family, but I want the people in this region to have homes to go to," Machado said.
Until then, the call center is open for business -- one ringy dingy, two ringy dingy.