Calling 9-1-1

When you call 911 from anywhere in Clay and Cass Counties, you’ll talk to one of Mary Phillippi’s “heroes in headsets” — the Red River Regional Dispatch Center’s staff of 40 communications operators who dispatch calls to police, sheriff’s departments, fire departments and emergency medical crews throughout the two counties. (Photo/Russ Hanson)

Nancy Edmonds Hanson
hansonnanc@gmail.com

This may be the very worst moment of your life. Has your car crashed, crumpled and burst into flames? Do you see signs that an interloper has ransacked your home? Do you smell smoke? Has a loved one collapsed and stopped breathing?
What do you do first? Call 9-1-1.
It’s more than a reflex. In the 51 years since the emergency phone number was introduced nationwide, counting on the calm, professional voices on the other end of the call has become so much a part of American life that it’s the universal key to coping with crisis. That confidence that help will come – the kind of help you need from whoever can get there first – is so unshakable that most people barely think of the dedicated men and women who answer those calls and the complex technology that enables them to find you.
“Around here, we like to say ‘heroes wear headsets,’” says Mary Phillippi. She now occupies the corner office in the Red River Regional Dispatch Center’s downtown office, which handles 9-1-1 calls for all of Clay and Cass Counties, but she knows firsthand the challenges of handling incoming phone calls around the clock. She has spent her entire career talking to callers facing emergencies – from her first job at 19 with the Clay County dispatch center on the Moorhead side of the river to, 14 years later, moving westward after the Clay-Moorhead and Cass-Fargo operations merged in 2002. (West Fargo also joined the consortium in 2008.)
Today Red River Dispatch is unique among the nation’s 6,500 emergency call centers: It’s the only one whose responsibilities cross state, county and municipal lines, encompassing vast rural as well as urban territory and a combined force of seven police departments, two county sheriffs, three city fire departments, 27 rural volunteer departments, F-M Ambulance and 15 rural EMS (emergency medical service) providers.
In the space of just minutes, the seven operators on rotating round-the-clock shifts must determine the caller’s location and the nature of the emergency, updating first responders even as they gather information over the phone. They often stay on the telephone as law enforcement, fire and ambulance sirens pulse and their lightbars flash on the way – calming the callers and often coaching them in what to do until the pros pull up outside.
“They’re proud of the work they do. They understand they make a difference,” Mary says of the staff, who rotate between locales and roles on a regular basis. Earlier this month, the center honored four who in the past quarter with life-saver awards; their coaching of callers in hands-only CPR literally saved the lives of four victims as they waited for EMTs. Three more earned separate awards for exceptional CPR instructions. One received the rarest – and cutest – award, a stork pin bearing a blue-blanketed bundle that signifies helping deliver a baby boy over the phone. (Baby girls warrant the same pin in pink.)
Her years in 9-1-1 dispatch have opened her eyes, she says, to how widely the work of communications operators affects the people they serve. She tells of one woman invited to take part in a ceremony for a man whose wife saved his life by following her CPR coaching over the phone. “It wasn’t just the couple. She was thanked by their adult children, their grandchildren … a whole crowd of family members whose lives would never have been the same without her help.”
She cautions, though “Not every outcome is that happy. At the same time, they’ve got to remember that their job is to do the best they can. They’re not responsible for bringing every victim back to life.”
Mary has felt the impact and learned that lesson over and over since, as a 19-year-old young mother, she went to work in the old Moorhead-Clay dispatch center in the basement of the now-demolished former law enforcement center. She’d grown up in Park Rapids as the eldest of seven brothers and sisters, all born within less than nine years. “I was used to taking charge,” she says with a smile. “Our mother was a nurse and our father a volunteer firefighter, so I was kind of used to the work.
“I thought it would be a wonderful job … a perfect fit. Almost 30 years later, I’m still here.”
She worked the 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift in Moorhead for 12 years straight, often as the only staffer on duty. “It could get a little hairy. I couldn’t even go to the bathroom unless I got a sergeant to cover for me,” she remembers. “We were always so busy. It was so interesting – amazingly fun. If you’re a high energy person, this could be the job for you.”
Throughout her tenure, her husband Jay switched his college major from teaching to law enforcement, eventually serving ten years as a Moorhead police officer. He eventually went back to school for a doctorate in psychology and now works at the Veterans Administration. One of Mary’s brothers and her brother-in-law went into police work, too, but have by now moved on. “I’m the only one who’s stuck it out,” she points out.
Much has changed in three decades. “It’s like night and day,” she reflects. Keyboards have replaced the detailed notes she originally logged by hand; instant digital updates with officers, firefighters and medics via computer have largely replaced radios. But nothing has changed the 9-1-1 landscape as profoundly as cellphones.
“When people called on land lines, we instantly knew who was calling and where they were located,” Mary explains. But the advent and widespread adoption of cellphones changed all that, adding an obstacle to the near-instant response that’s the ideal. “Originally we could only pinpoint the tower. The most important question to ask was, ‘Where are you?’ A lot of 9-1-1 callers couldn’t exactly tell us,” she says.
Improvements have come along, though the system isn’t perfect and doesn’t necessarily extend to all phones and carriers. Last month, Red River Dispatch became the first PSAP (public safety answering point) in North Dakota to adopt the NG911 Clearinghouse’s RapidSOS, which pinpoints location more closely. However, it only works with iPhones operating iOS 12 and Android phones running version 4.0 and higher.
Not all calls are what all might define as “emergencies.” “We answer every single call and connect them with what they’re looking for,” the dispatch center director emphasizes. “What feels like an emergency to the caller may not be how I’d define it, but they’ve still come to us for help.”
At the same time, she cautions that potential callers shouldn’t hesitate to dial 9-1-1. “We hear people say, ‘I don’t know if this is really an emergency.’ It’s pretty common here, especially with our humble Norwegian and German backgrounds,” she says. “We don’t like to feel we’re bothering someone.
“When in doubt, do go ahead and call,” she urges. “We’re not here to judge. The dispatcher is going to direct you to the help you need.”

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