30 March 2005

Colleen Beitel, Marie Dearstyne, Carla Ellingson, Roslyn Hanson & Rochelle Williams

Heros and Warriors all of them...


Flood of 911 Calls Builds Bridge for Future
By Larry Oakes
Star Tribune

BEMIDJI, MINN. -- As shots rang out in Red Lake High School, frantic students and staff members dialed 911.

The calls quickly overwhelmed the Indian reservation's emergency dispatch switchboard and began rolling over to 911 operators in Bemidji, 35 miles away. Across the miles, dozens of voices made pretty much the same desperate plea: "Someone's shooting people. Help us. Hurry."

Sitting in front of banks of computers, five Beltrami County dispatchers took the calls. Their supervisor, Beryl Wernberg, believes they and their counterparts in Red Lake saved lives Monday.

Trained for a variety of scenarios, including this one, the dispatchers had a reflexive set of crucial, potentially life-saving responses for each caller: "Yes, we know. Help is coming. Be calm. Stay low. Go into a room and lock the door. Hide."


"We don't advise people to confront someone who is bent on destruction," said Wernberg, recalling in an interview the tense moments and difficult hours after Monday's shootings. "They followed their training exactly."

Know their names

Beltrami County Sheriff Keith Winger declined Friday to release recordings or transcripts of the 911 calls, saying they first must be reviewed by FBI investigators who are reconstructing the shootings moment by moment. He also declined to let the five dispatchers be interviewed while the investigation is in progress.

But he and Wernberg had high praise for the dispatchers' handling of the calls and said the public should know their names: Colleen Beitel, Marie Dearstyne, Carla Ellingson, Roslyn Hanson and Rochelle Williams.

It was Beitel, said Wernberg, who took the all-important call from a female security guard in the school, kept her on the line and got her patched through in a three-way hookup with the Red Lake police.

"She was able to keep telling Colleen where in the building the shots were coming from, and we were able to relay that information. At the same time, she was moving through the hallways, warning kids to get in the rooms."

Wernberg said that extensive training allowed the dispatchers to handle the calls dispassionately: "You run on automatic. If you had to sit there and think, you'd be wasting time and maybe a life."

Still, it was impossible, Wernberg said, for the dispatchers not to feel for their fellow dispatchers in Red Lake, knowing that they were taking calls from their own children's school.

Outpouring of help

There was an outpouring of emergency aid from other towns, too.

Ambulances came speeding from as far away as Longville and Bigfork, mostly as back-up, to stand by and handle any routine emergencies that might crop up in places that had diverted emergency vehicles to Red Lake.

If there are silver linings to the tragedy, Winger said, one might be that emergency workers forged a strong bond with their counterparts on the reservation, making past uncertainties and misunderstandings over jurisdiction and cultural differences seem paltry.

"In a crisis, you forget about obstacles and run to the aid of your neighbors," he said. "Maybe we'll see barriers come down."


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