Late fire dispatcher remembered as legend by peers
Joanne Borgel's colleagues say she dedicated herself to building up York County Control at a time when no one even knew what 911 was
By Liz Evans Scolforo
The York Dispatch
YORK COUNTY, Pa. — That voice on the radio. Distinctive, knowledgeable and unfailingly calm, the broadcasts of York County 911 Center's Dispatcher No. 1 inspired confidence in York County firefighters for decades.
And if that was the extent of Joanne Borgel's contributions to York County over her 30 years of employment, she'd probably still be a local legend to a certain generation of fire-service first responders.
But Borgel — the first dispatcher ever hired in York County — also was critical to the success, and perhaps even survival, of the then-fledgling agency, according to those who knew her.
Her birthday was even 9/11, retired York City Fire Chief John Senft noted.
Her peers say she dedicated herself to building up York County Control, as the 911 center was first called. No one at the time even knew what 911 was, they said.
When she retired in 2000, the York County 911 Center also retired her dispatcher number, meaning there hasn't been a Dispatcher No. 1 for about 18 years.
'One of a kind'
Borgel, 76, of York City, died Jan. 17 at Normandie Ridge care center in West Manchester Township, according to her obituary.
Services were held Friday, Jan. 26, and that afternoon a fellow 911 dispatcher broadcast the county's official goodbye to Borgel: "Our center will be eternally grateful for her time here as our Dispatcher No. 1."
"Honest to God, she was one of a kind," said Cheri Gibbs Klinedinst, a fellow former dispatcher and Borgel's close friend for four decades.
"She gave her heart and soul to the county, and she became a friend to everybody," Klinedinst said. "I don't think there was anybody who didn't like Joanie, who couldn't sit down and talk to her."
"We would often refer to her as The Legend because she was a pioneer," Senft recalled.
Borgel was a telephone operator in 1970 when she was recruited to be the county's first dispatcher, according to Senft.
"The switchboard at the original (911) communications center had rotary-dial phones, and the switchboard itself was actually a board with holes and switches, like something out of the 1930s and '40s," he said. "That was the technology they started with in 1970. They were doing stuff that was unheard of before."
Klinedinst, who was Dispatcher 19 for years, said many people didn't think the agency would last and that Borgel left the operator job she'd held for 10 years to help make a go of York County Control.
Started from scratch
"I remember Joanie telling me the city firemen would come in and sit behind the console to help with the dispatching of the fire call locations because (dispatchers) had nothing to rely on," Klinedinst said. "They had no dispatch cards — nothing of that nature back then."
But Borgel changed all that.
"She met with fire chiefs in every township, every borough ... and they would drive around together and literally plot every single road with intersections. She put them in what we called a 'flex file,'" Klinedinst said. "She would type information on strips of cardboard and add them to the flex file."
Each strip of cardboard held pertinent information, including the closest cross streets and which ambulance company, fire department or fire company was responsible for handling that particular area. Klinedinst said Borgel created strips not just for residents, but also for businesses and schools.
"That's what Joanie did for the better half of her career," Klinedinst recalled. "She did a lot of the mapping and plotting for the county that was the actual forerunner to what they use today."
Volunteered her time
Borgel also volunteered with the York City Fire Department for several years as an ambulance driver, according to Senft.
She lived on Lindberg Avenue, and her back door was close to the city's old Rescue Fire Co. and Union Fire Co., both housed in the 100 block of North George Street, he said.
"She wanted to become active and do something," Senft said, adding Borgel started volunteering in early 1971.
Borgel's father, the late Henry "Spike" Borgel Sr., served as a volunteer York City firefighter when she was a child, and that's where she got her love of the fire service, according to Klinedinst.
Borgel also volunteered her time to the York County Fire School, "helping to maintain paperwork and records long before there was a staff there," Senft said.
It didn't take long for Borgel to be promoted to a supervisory position at York County Control.
And in 1978, she trained a young upstart on the fire dispatch board named Greg Halpin, of York City's Halpin firefighting family.
Halpin, who retired from the city fire service in 2015 as a deputy fire chief, said Borgel was awesome at her job. She had a good sense of humor and always greeted people with a smile, he recalled.
"She was just a good soul," Halpin said. "She was the one and only."
Jessica Iacono, currently a shift supervisor for the York County Department of Emergency Services, started working in the 911 center in 1990, when she was 19 years old. Borgel was the fire, EMS and police coordinator for 911 then, and Iacono remembers her as being a bit intimidating at first.
"Looking back on it, I think it was because she knew everything about the 911 center," Iacono wrote in an email. "She was ahead of her time in many ways. The job she did back then now takes many more people, time and a lot of computers! She maintained everything single-handedly without email, using a typewriter and a rotary phone."
Iacono said she doesn't know how Borgel did it all, adding that she came to respect Borgel's knowledge and learned to listen and learn from Dispatcher No. 1.
"There was never any doubt that if Joanne did it, it was done right!" Iacono wrote.
Richard Saylor, who retired as a York City assistant fire chief in 2009, said Borgel's voice was well known and that her reputation was impeccable.
"She was calm when she dispatched, and you could understand her," he said. "She didn't get excited the way some dispatchers did. If their adrenaline is pumping, so is yours, because the tone of their voice sets the tone of the call."
Saylor recalled Borgel as conscientious, dedicated and hard-working.
She also was loud.
Klinedinst, Senft, Halpin and others all made versions of the same joke — one that clearly has been around for many years.
"We would often joke that if the (911) transmitter ever broke down at county, you could put her on the tower and she could still be heard (making) the dispatches," Senft said.
'Deadly Dynamic Duo'
Firefighters and fellow dispatchers also coined a term for Borgel and Klinedinst, calling them the Deadly Dynamic Duo. Klinedinst said every fire chief in York County called them that.
Partially that was because the two "alpha females" worked so well together, Klinedinst said, and partially because if supervisors were sitting down to dispatch calls, things were probably hopping in the county and fire crews were in for a busy night.
"When we signed on, fire chiefs literally shuddered," she said.
Halpin said retired and former 911 dispatchers started meeting regularly, and Halpin credited Borgel for much of it. They met monthly at a local restaurant for dinner and beer, he said.
Klinedinst said Borgel, her lifelong friend, always called her "Gibby."
"I feel like I lost part of myself the day she passed away," Klinedinst said. "We went shopping together, we ate lunch together, we even went on vacation together once."
Saylor described Borgel as "old school" and the kind of employee that bosses want to hire and keep.
"You don't meet many people like her nowadays," he said.
Senft said he'll most miss the stories he and Borgel shared together over the years.
"And from a professional standpoint, we remember her as a very dedicated and caring person who was very much devoted to her duties," he said.
Borgel graduated from York Catholic Senior High School in 1960 and was a member of St. Mary's Church in York City. She also held membership in a number of fire companies, the York County Firefighters Association and the York Volunteer Firefighters Relief Association, according to her obituary.
Copyright 2018 The York Dispatch