Retired Monticello dispatcher receives Red Cross Hero Award

Gail HyattGail Hyatt, the Monticello dispatcher who reassured and encouraged a man lost in a raging wildfire on September 19, is the recipient of an Arkansas Red Cross Hero Award.

Hyatt, who recently retired after 30 years of service, was awarded the organization’s Law Enforcement Hero Award, presented to a law enforcement officer or dispatcher who exhibits exceptional heroism either in response to an emergency potentially life-threatening situation or through such on-going responses.

During a 35-minute 911 call on September 19, Hyatt reassured and encouraged the man trapped in a 600-acre Drew County wildfire while firemen, law enforcement officers, and Arkansas Forestry Commission personnel worked to locate him.

Michael Fritts, of Wilmar, was checking on his preparations for deer season in a wooded area between Tennessee Spur and his home on Allis Road on September 19 when he found himself surrounded by flames.

Lost, out of breath, disoriented and tired, Fritts fled the approaching flames for 35 minutes while Hyatt encouraged him to “keep moving.”

“I can’t breathe; my legs are weak,” he said 24 minutes into the phone call. “I’m dizzy.”

Three minutes later, he told Hyatt he was in a pine thicket and the fire was about two seconds behind him.

“I’m in a pine thicket,” he said. “I’m not going to make it.”

“Yes, you’re going to make it,” Hyatt said. “You’re going to make it. Don’t you give up.”

Hyatt continued encouraging him. “You’re going to be OK,” she assured him. “You’re doing good. Don’t give up.”

About 29 minutes into the call, Fritts said, “Oh hell, here comes the fire ma’am. I’m in the pine thicket. I can’t make it through the pine thicket.”

“Get out of that pine thicket!” she said.

“I’m trying.”

“You’re not going to give up,” she said. “You’re going to keep going, OK.”

“I’m going,” he said.

“If you have to, crawl, but get out of there.”

Meanwhile, Hyatt is also communicating with Monticello Fire Chief Kelly Reid, Drew County Sheriff Mark Gober, Monticello Police Capt. Carlos Garcia and Monticello Police Investigator Kenny Cox.

Garcia was utilizing the 911 system and cell phone pings to locate Fritts.

“We tried to get the 911 system to locate him by the ping on the cell phone by basically triangulating to see where the cell phone signal was coming from,” Garcia said. “We finally got that and we noticed he was between Tennessee Spur and Allis Road, deep in the woods… and could see that he was moving west from the Tennessee Spur area.”

Cox and the Arkansas Forestry Commission were coordinating the air search for Fritts.

Cox was relaying information to an Arkansas Forestry Commission pilot through the Arkansas Forestry Commission dispatcher.

And Reid and Gober were sounding sirens and providing guidance from the scene of the fire.

Since Fritts was disoriented and had no sense of direction, Reid suggested that he walk toward the sun. But Fritts couldn’t see the sun; the smoke was too dense.

Eventually, however, he could hear the sirens. He followed the sound until he emerged from the woods.

He was exhausted, dehydrated, and had difficulty standing, according to Gober, who took him to an ambulance on standby about 300 yards away.

“He got really lucky,” Reid said. “A lot of good work by a lot of good people saved that man’s life.”

Garcia said the reason Fritts remained calm and kept going was Hyatt’s reassurance that he was going to make it. “Miss Gail kept him calm and motivated,” Garcia said.

Hyatt, who retired in December, attributed to experience her ability to remain calm under pressure.

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