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Drama of trauma

School Resource Officer Michael Clower spoke calmly as he asked dispatcher Amanda Gibson to send three officers to Fargo North High School. A male student may have a gun, he reported. Clower needed backup but he wanted it done quietly.

Amanda Gibson

School Resource Officer Michael Clower spoke calmly as he asked dispatcher Amanda Gibson to send three officers to Fargo North High School.

A male student may have a gun, he reported.

Clower needed backup but he wanted it done quietly.

Gibson didn't flinch, quickly typing the information into the Red River Regional Dispatch Center system, silently sending officers to the scene, and called Clower's sergeant.

Several officers responded to the call, but it turned out to be a false alarm.


The school calls can be difficult, but so can many other calls dispatchers receive working at the dispatch center.

There's been an accident and the person is trapped inside the vehicle.

Someone's been stabbed.

Someone's not breathing.

The baby is having a seizure.

"There's the calls that take you to your knees and there's the calls that are just everyday," dispatcher Jackie Ridgeway said.

A lot of emergency workers, including dispatchers, can experience secondary trauma as a consequence of what they experience on the job, according to James Rechs, a counselor and clinical supervisor of family-based services at The Village Family Service Center in Fargo.

"When you talk with somebody who has gone through a trauma ... or is currently going through a trauma, in a way, you re-experience part of what they're going through," Rechs said. "A lot of the images that go through your mind, you kind of bring those home with you and they kind of continue to replay in your mind."


And so it goes in a day in the life of a Red River Valley dispatcher.

Inside the center

However, the uncertainty of what call to expect next is part of the appeal of being a dispatcher, according to Kit Metcalf, who has been working at the center for four years.

Sometimes the calls pile atop each other. Other times there are long lapses between calls.

"It's like 90 percent waiting for something to happen and 10 percent dealing with it," dispatcher Chris Novak said.

Those lapses are sometimes filled with chatter about a dramatic call the night before or conversation about life.

It can challenging some days because dispatchers want their shift to be busier, to go by faster, but that means bad things have to happen to people, Gibson said.

Day shifts tend to receive more mundane calls, such as burglaries from overnight being reported or calls asking officers to check on cars parked in front of mailboxes.


The calls that come in during the evening hours can make the night shift seem busier, Gibson said. Then dispatchers often are inundated with calls about fights, assaults and domestic disturbances.

A typical string of domestic disturbance calls came in as Jan. 19 began to approach Jan. 20:

- A woman reporting a man making death threats to her at 10:44 p.m. tells Ridgeway that she told him to leave but he didn't listen.

"He said that people are gonna get hurt if he has to leave," the woman said.

A man could be overheard telling the woman he's not harassing her, just asking to use the phone.

Ridgeway tells the woman go into a room and lock the door. The woman responds that the man is calm now.

"He knows I've called the cops and he's behaving himself," she said.

- At 2:27 a.m. a man calls in reporting that his girlfriend has just assaulted him. The girlfriend can be heard saying she "didn't do anything."

He retorted: "You left marks on my (expletive deleted) face. It's too late for sorry. No one hits me."

Novak tells the man to try and go to a separate room.

"I just want you to ignore her," Novak says.

The man says he thinks the situation is alright, adding it "looks like she's passing out in her bed now."

"I think we're okay," he says and the call ends.

Domestic calls can be difficult to handle, but are even worse when kids are involved, Ridgeway said.

In general, calls involving kids are the worst to take, but sometimes children are the best callers because they don't get stressed as easily as adults do, Novak said.

Novak used to shake when he would take calls involving suicides or bad domestic situations, but they became easier the more he received them.

"It's learning how to separate yourself from it," he said.

Handling the stress

Because dispatching can be stressful, part of the 21-week training program newly hired dispatchers undergo specifically addresses stress management, said Kathy Colvin, the center's director.

Dispatchers also have several options for counseling through an employer assistance program at The Village in Fargo or debriefing sessions and counseling groups.

"They seem to know what to do for each other too," Colvin said of the group she describes as very tight-knit.

In general, the center sees a lot of employee turnover, with some new hires dropping out before finishing the extensive training because the job isn't a good match or because they cannot pass part of that training, Colvin said."You have to be a special kind of person to want this job, to keep it and enjoy it," she said.

Those special traits were on display when two and a half years ago, Novak took an especially startling call:

'I just killed my lover'

Novak had just finished a routine call on Aug. 16, 2005, when a 911 line rang about 10:25 a.m.:

"Emergency Center, 911," Novak said.

"Well, I just killed my lover. I think he's dead," replied John Martin Francis, the 911 caller.

Francis repeatedly admitted to killing Gary Stodieck, telling Novak that Stodieck cheated on him and he got upset. Francis would not answer questions about how Stodieck died in the hotel room at the Grand Inn in Moorhead and replied "of course" when asked if he has been drinking.

The call ended when Francis hung up on Novak shortly after saying, "Get the police over here pretty soon."

"I got off the phone and I was literally shaking," Novak said of the call. He added that he had to walk outside just to regain his breath.

Now, Novak laughs as he recalls the next call that he took - a report of a barking dog.

Getting used to it

Jumping from a medical emergency to another call without knowing what happened to the person can be hard at first, but it gets easier, according to Metcalf.

"You kind of get used to not knowing the end of the story," she said.

Getting upset about what one hears over the phone makes it hard to do the job, she added.

"You just focus on getting the help there because that's the best thing you can do for that person," Metcalf said.

When to call 911

The Red River Regional Dispatch Center offers several tips about when it is appropriate to call 911. However, authorities say when in doubt, do call 911.

You should call 911 for an emergency, such as:

- A serious medical problem

- A fire

- A life-threatening situation

- A crime that is in progress.

You should not call 911:

- For information or road information

- For directory assistance

- To ask why sirens are going off

- When the electricity or other utilities are off; call your local provider in such an instance

- As a prank

- To test your phone or the 911 system.

If a situation arises that is not an emergency, contact local authorities at a non-emergency number for the following areas:

- Fargo - (701) 235-4493

- Cass County - (701) 241-5800

- Moorhead - (218) 299-5120

- Clay County - (218) 299-5151

- Dilworth - (218) 287-2666

- Glyndon - (218) 498-2727

- Barnesville - (218) 354-2281

- Hawley - (218) 483-4666.

If you dial 911 in error, don't hang up. Stay on the line and let the dispatcher know that the call was a mistake. If you hang up, a law enforcement officer must be sent to confirm that you are OK.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Brittany Lawonn at (701) 241-5541

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