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Viewpoint: Saving a life, one call at a time

It’s shortly after 11:30 on a Thursday night when the Washington County dispatch center receives a call from a calm but worried female stating her estranged husband had come to her home with a loaded gun. He is talking to their daughter in the kitchen, she tells the dispatcher on the other end. She explains that following their separation he has been drinking, and on and off his medication and appears to have not taken it in several days. The loaded gun sits on the kitchen table, she said. The situation begins to escalate.

Police are on their way, the dispatcher tells the female.

This roughly 20-minute 911 call, which was made from a Cottage Grove home in 2010, was played during week two of the Cottage Grove Public Safety Department’s Citizens Academy. Christy Clark, a longtime dispatcher for Washington County, shared her experiences of directing police officers and emergency personnel into the line of fire, a job she said requires quick thinking, patience and a strange attraction to adrenaline.

A minimum of 580 hours of training is required to be a dispatcher. The training usually takes about a year, Clark said. Students learn to respond appropriately to emergencies and non-emergencies alongside seasoned dispatchers before given a line of their own. Many become EMD-certified (emergency medical dispatch), which trains dispatchers how to tell callers to perform CPR, the Heimlich maneuver and other basic pre-arrival medical procedures.

The dispatch center is located in Stillwater and Clark said at any given time of the day between four and six people work the phones. That’s four to six people covering 23 cities, roughly 244,000 people, she said, from as far south as Denmark Township to as far north as Forest Lake. And each day is different.

It was a slow afternoon, Clark remembered, when her phone rang. It sounded like a caller was on the other end, but the person wasn’t speaking directly into the receiver. From what Clark could understand, there was an intruder in the house and the caller was hiding. Clark remained calm and assured her that police were en route. The reception was groggy at best. Clark said the caller was becoming more and more frightened. She said it sounded like something out of a movie. It turned out to be exactly that.

“She butt-dialed me,” Clark said. “And she was watching the movie ‘The Call,’ which is about a girl who is speaking with a 911 dispatcher when the intruder kidnaps her. My adrenaline was through the roof. I was rushing to get everyone to that house.”

Clark shared a few other light-hearted calls — one about a woman who saw a duck in her pool, another asking for directions. Other 911 calls were played, including a man asking for police to scrape the ice from his windows and a woman who locked herself in — yes, in — her vehicle. She was embarrassed when she pulled up the door lock. Despite the silliness that comes with some 911 calls, Clark said each call is treated as if it were an emergency.

Adrenaline is a common effect during many volatile calls, especially when situations are high-risk or end badly. The nature of the job, Clark said, causes a swift burnout rate that takes dispatchers out of the field within about four years, she said. However, on a daily basis she said it’s all about saving lives.

Back to our female caller in the beginning. The tense standoff continued as the dispatcher, in a calm, low voice — a technique Clark said also helps keep callers calm — instructs her to tell the daughter to retrieve the gun. The husband realizes his wife is on the phone and begins to get anxious. The ordeal gets heated, but police have arrived. The husband gets on the phone, and again in a calm voice the dispatcher tells him that they are getting him help. He is instructed to walk out of the door with his hands in the air and obey police. While the family is shaken, the situation is controlled without injuries.

It’s those calls Clark said shoot the adrenaline sky high. Coming down from the adrenaline rush and talking about the situation helps her decompress. And swapping stories, she said, makes her realize what a difference she has made. It’s that feeling, most of all, that keeps her on the line.

Reporter Emily Buss is participating in the eight-week Citizens Academy, hosted by the Cottage Grove Public Safety Department. Follow her reports weekly in the Bulletin.