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Dispatchers are first ‘on scene’ at accidents

December 22, 2010
Jenn Brookens — Staff Writer

Editor's note: First of three articles on the experience of emergency personnel in dealing with drinking and driving.

FAIRMONT - In a sense, they are the first ones at the scene of the crash.

They hear an account from a witness or a person involved. They hear the panic in the voices, or the screaming in the background. And they are the ones who must be calm enough to find out exactly what type of help is needed, and get it there.

"When we get that call, we go into this certain mode," said Diane Obray, one of the Martin County dispatchers who answers those 911 calls. "The first thing we need is, 'Where are you?' Once we get that, and get the fire and ambulance going, then we can kind of take a breath. Then we start thinking about who do we know that's out there today."

Joann Russenberger knows that feeling all too well. Both she and Obray have had calls that still haunt them.

"I think we all have one of those," Russenberger said. "You can hear it in their tone of voice, the screaming in the background. You begin to picture it."

"We can't fall apart; we couldn't do this job if we did," Obray added. "But we feel like we we're there."

Keeping their cool is tough enough, but it's worse when those calling for help are confused or intoxicated.

"If the caller is hysterical, or has no clue of where they are at, we start having to ask for details, any sign or landmark that may tell us where they are," Russenberger said. "911 on cell phones have come a long way, but they still can't pinpoint, and there are also areas between towers."

This task becomes more difficult with impaired drivers.

"A lot of people who know they are driving drunk will try to take the backroads to avoid being caught," Russenberger said. "It makes it a lot more complicated when they do crash."

For example, one crashed caller thought he was located east of Highway 15, when he was actually west, and all the help was dispatched several miles off course. The impairment also affects the sense of time.

"We'll have someone say, 'We just passed Blue Earth,' and they're actually over by Sherburn," Obray said.

"There is a feeling of helplessness when we can't figure out where they are at," Russenberger said.

Once help is on the way, there is the haunting thought (or knowledge) that the crash has injured or killed someone they know.

"You begin thinking of people out there; you think of this person who might be driving in that area," Russenberger said. "There is that period of time that you have that worry until you know different."

"When there is a crash and someone is killed, there is a lot of 'if only,'" Obray said.

This is something she knows from personal experience. Obray lost her son, John, in a drunk driving accident in 2004.

"Even as dispatchers, we have those thoughts of, 'If only we had gotten this quicker,'" she said. "But the survivors, they have that the most. And it's life-lasting."


There is a current Safe and Sober campaign focusing on drunken driving. With the upcoming holiday celebrations, the Fairmont Police Department wants to get the message out about not driving while impaired.

"We have had too many fatalities this year; we need to be reminded of the consequences of not thinking or planning ahead of time," said Fairmont Police Chief Greg Brolsma.

"We're not telling people not to drink," Russenberger said. "Just don't drink and drive ... Make those plans for a designated driver in advance."

On the Fairmont Police Web site, there is a graphic video that shows not only what emergency workers see at crashes, but also how they must deal with the families of those injured or killed.

"The video is reality for us," Brolsma said. "It points out so painfully clear how these survivors and those affected just wish they could have done something different."



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