40 Years Behind The Mic - Four Decades of Service to Putnam County

L to R: 911 Board Chairman Bob Duncan, 911 Public Safety Dispatcher Phillip Harris, and 911/EMS Director Randy Porter.

COOKEVILLE, TENN — At the recent Putnam County 911 Board meeting, Board members had a unique opportunity to thank a long-time dispatcher who has served Putnam County since 1974.

911 dispatcher Phillip Harris, who began his career just two weeks before what was likely the most notorious day in Putnam County Emergency Services history, has seen a lot of changes and been in many different situations over his four decade career.

“I am so thankful to have been able to be here this long. This is a great organization, with great people and great leadership. I am just one member of a really great team,” stated Harris. When asked about the “Black Wednesday” tornado outbreak of 1974, Harris remarked “it was one of the worst days of my career, and I was only two weeks into my career at that point. There are so many things I can remember happening over the years, and so many I have forgotten, but that is one of the many days that still sticks in my head.”

When Harris began working as a dispatcher, he worked for a private ambulance company that was operated out of a laundromat. “We didn’t have 911 then, we barely had ambulances. We had to call the night shift ambulance crews in from home. They would come get the ambulance then drive to the call. We probably ran a total of 6-8 calls a day on regular days back then. Bethel Newport took over the ambulance service in 1971, when the funeral homes opted out of the ambulance service, and ran it from his Snow White Laundry business. Up until then, you probably had a hearse as your ambulance. It was one of the only vehicles then that was made to transport human bodies.”

Long-time 911/EMS director Randy Porter remembers Harris as always being the expert in dispatching.

“Phillip has always been that dispatcher that the rest of us looked up to, and most of the time could work circles around the rest of us if we would just get out of his way. From the time I started, up until today, we still look at Phillip as being the best. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for Phillip and the time he took with me when I started,” states Porter.

Over the decades Harris has been in emergency services, he has seen the ambulance service dispatch go through many changes. “We went from one phone, one radio, and one channel to all touch screen digital phones and radios with nearly unlimited capabilities. We are really fortunate to have the equipment and resources we have here in Putnam County,” continued Harris.

“When Buddy and Sue Chaffin began running the ambulance service in 1977, we saw a lot more changes. We had paramedics for the first time. The Chaffin’s son, Lee, was one of the first paramedics Putnam County had. The Chaffin’s really saw the need for a modernized EMS (Emergency Medical Services) and brought us into the next phase of EMS as we knew it.”

In February of 1977 the ambulance service moved into the old Herald-Citizen building on Madison Avenue, then later moved to the Norwalk building on N. Washington, the county fairgrounds women’s building, and in 1985 moved into a new facility on Carlen Drive.

“We were at the Carlen Drive building for about 25 years, and still have a substation there now,” explained Porter.

Harris continued, “The biggest change we have seen in recent years was our move to the emergency services complex on County Services Drive in 2009. We are so thankful for what we have and where we’ve been. It is just amazing to look back and think of all the things that have happened over the years and all the changes we have seen.”

Porter concluded, “The only other thing I would say is that the citizens of Putnam County are better off, and safer, because Phillip Harris is here. He changes people’s lives on a daily basis and those people never even know his name. That’s pretty amazing.”

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In this photo: 911/EMS Director Randy Porter congratulates Harris on 40 years of service to Putnam County. 

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