Michael O’Brien, a 2004 graduate of Pocahontas County High School, was appointed to serve as the county’s 911/Office of Emergency Services Director by the Pocahontas County Commission at its June 2 meeting. O’Brien is anxious to begin his duties as overseer of the county’s emergency programs and services. When asked to explain the newly combined position, O’Brien described it as having two parts – the 911 side, and the EMS side. “There’s the 911 side,” O’Brien said. “I’d be in charge of dispatchers, day-to-day operations of the 911 center, and be in charge of the radio system.” He would also be in charge of the county mapping, which includes the new 911 addresses and road signs. The other half of the job, the EMS half, deals with being prepared. “It’s ninety percent preparedness and being prepared for a major disaster and/or an emergency,” O’Brien explained. He stressed the importance of having resources such as shelters available, as well as being prepared to handle a multitude of situations – flooding, prolonged power outages – and how to respond quickly to people who are on oxygen and those with disabilities. In the case of a major disaster or emergency, area agencies, facilities and organizations would report to O’Brien, who, in turn, would request outside resources, such as the National Guard, Red Cross, as well as help from the state and federal levels. When asked how he came to be in this new position, O’Brien summed it up to chance.
“An opportunity came open [for me] to be the 911 director for the county,” said O’Brien, “and I saw that as an opportunity to get to work, not only with one EMS agency, but to work with the whole county again – to get to work with the fire departments again, the EMS, the police department, [and to] give back to the county and community that I really like.” Now that his chance has become a reality, O’Brien is excited to move forward and take his first step towards bettering the county. “The most challenging thing I see right now is our current radio system because of the air ban in Green Bank,” O’Brien said. “It creates challenges with communications, [and] we’re having some issues. The previous 911 Director worked great with that. He’s doing everything he can do. We’ve just got some more work to do, and we’ve got to figure out a better way to get more radio towers in place to better the communications in the county.” In order to improve the radio systems and subsequent communication, O’Brien is working closely with NRAO Business Manager Mike Holstine. “We are in a national quiet zone,” said O’Brien, “and everything has to be coordinated through and approved by the Observatory.” When asked if he felt that his previous experiences and jobs gave him an advantage, O’Brien said, “yes.” He began his emergency services career as a junior volunteer member at Station 2, BFD, which carried over to Shaver’s Fork Fire and Rescue. As EMS Chief at Pocahontas Memorial Hospital, he gave mutual aid to the Marlinton, Hillsboro, and Frost departments, as well. During his time with Shaver’s Fork Fire and Rescue squad, O’Brien was named Firefighter of the Year for two consecutive years. “I understand the resources that these departments and squads have available,” said O’Brien. “I know the type of trucks they have, how much water the trucks have on them, what the pump capacities are, their EMS resources, who has a lighter truck and who doesn’t, and who has trained paramedics and Hazmat technicians.” O’Brien addressed the issue of coming into a position surrounded by tension. “It’s a fresh start, and I hope everyone at the 911 Center can overlook what happened in the past and what went on because I can’t change that or have anything to do with that,” he said. “The previous director brought the county a long way.” O’Brien hopes to do the same. Plans to obtain grants are underway, and O’Brien hopes to work diligently to keep the county prepared in case of emergencies. “Bear with us,” he said. “Everything takes time and money.” Born in Elkins, O’Brien spent most of his childhood in Green Bank. His grandfather was the Henry of Henry’s Quick Stop. In 1989, O’Brien’s father, a State Park Superintendent, transferred the family to Monroe County. O’Brien remained there until he entered the sixth grade. His grandmother died in 1997, and he and his mother moved back to Green Bank to run the family business. Following high school, O’Brien went to trade school for heating and air conditioning, but soon realized that it was not the work for him. Shortly after that, he was given the opportunity to work at Snowshoe as an electrician. He remained there for five years. Finally, in 2010, O’Brien was given the chance he had always dreamed of. “I had the opportunity to go to work my dream job as a full-time firefighter and paramedic at the Shaver’s Fork Fire and Rescue,” he said. He began work there as an EMT with the understanding that he would become a paramedic. O’Brien completed the intermediate program – a step below para- medic – in December 2010. He was scheduled to begin his next training in September 2011, but a July 26, 2011 accident changed that plan. Five years later in December 2014, O’Brien graduated as a paramedic. “It felt really good to finally get that,” he said. In an interview three years ago, O’Brien opened up about the fateful July day that changed his life forever. “We had been riding dirt bikes and were on our way home,” he told The Pocahontas Times, “Luckily, I was wearing all my gear.” An accident like O’Brien’s might have killed him, but because of his protective gear, he survived. His escape, however, was not without its repercussions. A broken fibula, a compound tibia fracture, and an infection were just some of the injuries O’Brien sustained. His most severe break, however, resulted in an injury known as an Incomplete Spinal Cord Injury. O’Brien suffered a break of his fifth cervical–C5–vertebrae. “I broke my vertebrae all around it [the nerve], but I didn’t break it,” O’Brien said. The phrenic nerve, located within the C3 to C5 vertebrae, controls both the diaphragm and a person’s breathing. If O’Brien had severed the nerve, he would have been paralyzed from the neck down and could have ended up on a ventilator for the rest of his life. Fortunately, that was not the case, and O’Brien was optimistic that he would recover from his injuries. As of now, he still uses his wheelchair but has made progress in regaining his ability to walk. “I walk some, but not well,” O’Brien said. “A lot of physical therapy got me to where I’m at.” Physical therapy, however, was not the only driving force behind his recovery. He credits half of it to willpower. “I could have just as easily given up, sat at home, and drawn a check,” O’Brien said, “but I do care, and I want to give back and continue to work. I have that opportunity now to do my part, and I have a place and a job I can do – and I’m going to do everything in my power to do that.” Asked if his injury might prove troublesome, O’Brien said, “With anything there’s definitely uncertainty. Only time will tell. I think I will be fine. I don’t think I’ll have any issues with the job, being able to handle the job, or do the job.” A man who rose to defeat the odds, O’Brien has not forgotten the kindness of those who helped and supported him. It is his hope to repay the kindness shown to him, and he hopes to use his position as the new director of the 911/Office of Emergency Services to do just that. Cailey Moore may be contacted at cdmoore @pocahontastimes.com