LIVINGSTON PARISH, LA (WAFB) - During the 44th annual Kiwanis Club Peace Officer of the Year ceremony, leaders of the Denham Springs Police Department, Denham Springs Marshal's Office, Louisiana State Police and Livingston Parish Sheriff's Office were told to choose an employee that went above and beyond the call of duty last year. Sheriff Jason Ard says he couldn't just pick one recipient, but maybe fourteen.
Ard says during last August's flood the Livingston Parish Sheriff's Office rescued over 20,000 stranded people. Many of those calls for help were first heard by the department's dispatchers.
"Most of the time we focus on the deputies that show up at your home to rescue you or to deal with situations. We tend to forget about those that send those lifesavers your way," said Livingston Parish Sheriff Jason Ard.
He says the average citizen probably would have never guessed, but those calm voices on the other end of the line were standing ankle deep in water, "They had to roll up their pants and take off their shoes. They continued to answer calls," Ard said.
Cheryl O'Neil says in her 14 years working as a dispatcher, she's never had an experience quite like the one during the flood.
"We walked in the center and it was organized chaos," said O'Neil.
The sheriff says over a dozen dispatchers worked for hours in the flooded command center off Florida Blvd. before they were forced to evacuate to a new emergency command center.
"You're used to being that person when they're in the worst moments of their life but these were clearly different and it was every single call," said dispatcher Whitney Murphy.
O'Neil says the phone continued to ring, and they were receiving "more calls than our system could handle."
It might have been too much for the system but the dispatchers were ready.
"We're wired that way. We love our job and when those times call, there's nowhere else you'd rather be. Being a dispatcher is part of who you are," Murphy said.
It's that selflessness shown by dispatchers that prompted 7-year-old Rosalyn Baldwin, who travels the country, to make her way to Livingston Parish.
Baldwin started this 50-state hugging tour in January. She's already stopped in 10 states to hug first responders, acknowledge them for their sacrifice and "thank them for saving our lives."
"I just wanna bless them and hug them for all they've done for us," Baldwin said.
First responders say they will continue to do what they know is the right thing for the community.
"That's my job. All day every day. People are calling in, in a panic and we can't be in a panic or nothing gets done. We have to be the calming
voice. Even if we're faking it. But we will get it done, we always get it done," O'Neil said.
Baldwin's next stop is Arkansas. To find out more about her mission, click here.