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By Lacey Gardner

Mel Mickle honored nationally during National Public Safety Telecommunications Week in the Journal of Emergency Dispatch

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This story, titled “Big Voice in a Small County” first ran in August of 2020, but the Journal of Emergency Dispatch has published it again this week as part of National Public Safety Telecommunications Week.

Here is part of the story:

Melba “Mel” Mickle was like an intrepid postal carrier except instead of delivering mail, she lent her voice for 19 years to Allegany County, New York (USA), public services.

(Read the entire article HERE)

Mickle was the sole fire/ambulance radio operator for the county. With a single tower site, Mickle received the seven-digit fire/ambulance and Andover Police Department calls and dispatched mutual fire aid for the entire county, excluding Wellsville, which had its own rescue operator.

Melba Mickle just before her retirement in 1989. Photo courtesy of Allegany County Historical Society.

Mickle took over dispatch services immediately after her husband, George, died in 1969. Affectionately known as the voice at the base station (KED-620), Mickle kept the line open 24/7, day and night, except for Sunday church services during which volunteer firefighters substituted. According to Allegany local history, Mickle sometimes went “days and nights without sleep to make sure every piece of fire equipment and fire personnel were where they were supposed to be and were safely back at home when the fire was over.”

Mickle retired in 1988 when the radio was moved back to the Allegany County courthouse in Belmont, and 911 services were consolidated. She died nine years later on Nov. 12, 1997.

Mickle’s funeral was the “who’s who” in Allegany County public service, drawing not only relatives and friends but, also, an extended family that included 24 crews from Allegany County Fire Department, patrol cars sent by New York State Police, Allegany County Sheriff’s Department, and Village Police Department and crews from two Pennsylvania fire departments arriving in fire and rescue trucks and ambulances.2

Don’t think for a second that Mickle was soon forgotten, a postscript in the annals of Allegany County fire history. In 1999 the Mickle family, who lived in Wellsville (Allegany County), organized the first Christmas fireworks display in her honor.3 The tradition continues as the concluding event in the annual “It’s a Wonderful Life in Wellsville” Christmas Celebration.

Randy Swarthout has lived his entire life in Allegany County, and for the past 31 years, he’s been a dispatcher at Allegany County 911. Of course he remembers Mickle.

“It’s a small town,” he said. “People liked her. She got paid for what she did, but not very much, and she was always there taking the calls.”

She was very particular about radio etiquette too, according to former Andover Fire Chief George Givens. Things were to be done a certain way, and people did it. Givens said he could remember saying “Okey-dokey” over the airwaves once. Later he was given a citation by Mel for it.4

Mickle worked her last day on Dec. 31, 1988. Swarthout worked his first day on Jan. 1, 1989. He is now head dispatcher and the last remaining of the original hires.

Swarthout was in a work/study EMS program in college when the assistant manager at the consolidated center “twisted” his arm to apply. He was the third hired among three new employees tasked with answering calls coming in on 30 extensions. Designated buttons on each phone alerted responders serving the location the callers cited.

Their workplace featured the essentials of the day. They sat on folding chairs at a table inside the civil defense room at the county building and took notes with pen and paper. Initial training lasted three hours and, mostly, they learned “on the fly.” Experience as an EMT helped Swarthout guide callers in need of emergency instruction for cardiac arrest or baby delivery.

“Very generic [instructions] to pass on to the caller so they could get something started before an ambulance arrived,” Swarthout said.

While Swarthout never expected to retire from dispatch, it’s also a career he’d find hard to replace.

“The next phone call could be someone having their worst day,” he said. “It’s satisfying to know you can help.”

(Some of the information came from the writings of Bill Greene for the Allegany County Historical Society and from the now-defunct and deleted wellsvilledaily.com website)

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