‘911, what’s your emergency?’ Winona’s guardian angels, the unsung heroes of law enforcement

Tobias Mann – Winona Daily News
April 26, 2019

When heavy snow whipped by 55-mph winds left more than 100 motorists stranded across Winona County this February, Amanda Jonsgaard and Cindy Huggenvik were among the first to know about it.

During their 12-hour shifts, the two Winona County dispatchers each fielded more than 300 calls, many from stranded motorists waiting for help to arrive.

With each call, they answered, “911, what’s your emergency,” their voices always calm, collected and without a trace of fear or apprehension.

It’s a day still fresh in Jonsgaard and Huggenvik’s memories and certainly one of their busiest in a long time.

The storm — one of the worst in southeast Minnesota’s history — prompted newly elected Gov. Tim Walz to declare a state of emergency and deploy the U.S. National Guard to help stranded Minnesotans dig out.

And at the center of that effort, dispatchers — like Huggenvik and Jonsgaard — were tasked with coordinating the rescuers.

Jonsgaard described the onslaught of frantic motorists who’d disregarded warnings to stay off the road only to find themselves trapped by the snow, some of whom were calling for the second, third or fourth time, scared they’d been forgotten.

“I had a lady run out of gas in the middle of Hwy. 14,” she said. “Thankfully there was a MnDOT plow that was stuck a little ways ahead of her.”

Jonsgaard remembers checking in with the woman three, maybe four times, scared for her wellbeing.

“I was worried sick,” she said.

And it wasn’t just motorists unprepared for the sheer quantity of snow, it was emergency personnel, plow drivers and firefighters tasked with carrying out rescue efforts, too.

“We had an ambulance get stuck three times,” Jonsgaard said. “A state trooper fell and broke her arm and a fire truck got stuck in a driveway for hours.”

For Jonsgaard and Huggenvik, every day is different, but they all start a little before 4:30 a.m. when they arrive at the dispatch center to relieve the night shift and get the lowdown on what’s been afoot.

Seated in their heavily bolstered chairs, their eyes dart between a panoramic array of monitors while scanning for radio chatter from any one of a dozen or more agencies in and out of the county.

That’s because Jonsgaard and Huggenvik aren’t just taking calls for the Winona Police or Sheriff’s departments. During their shifts, they’re in charge of dispatching, police, fire and ambulance service for the entire county.

And if that weren’t enough, they’re also in charge of locking and unlocking the bevy of doors in and out of the Winona County Jail.

Dispatchers have to be able to multitask, said dispatch supervisor Jenifer LaValla.

Perhaps, more importantly, no matter what happens, whether it’s a noise complaint, domestic assault or high-speed chase, it’s absolutely essential they stay calm.

“You have to remain calm,” Jonsgaard said. “You have to be the calm voice on the line.”

“You cannot lose it,” she added. “If you’re frantic, you’re just adding to the chaos.”

It’s not an easy job, but it’s an absolutely essential one, said Deputy Chief Tom Williams of the Winona Police Department.

“It’s an extremely important job and they take it incredibly seriously,” he said, adding that they’re the ones working behind the scenes enabling officers to do their jobs.

For Jonsgaard, who spent years working in Olmsted County as a jailer, it’s both the most challenging and stressful job she’s ever held and at the same time it’s also the most rewarding.

But for her, the knowledge she’s helping people is enough to make even the most stressful days worth it.

“You’re helping others. Helping officers get home safe,” she said. “There’s a satisfaction to knowing you’re making a difference.”

According to Huggenvik, who has trained countless dispatchers during her 20 years with the department, it not a job that everyone is cut out for.

Becoming a dispatcher takes months of training and observation.

“Some people don’t make it a week,” Huggenvik said. “They can’t handle it.”

She said the stress of the job can really take a toll not only emotionally, but physically as well.

Sworn to strict confidentiality agreements, details of a dispatcher’s day can’t leave the building.

“You don’t talk about this at home,” Huggenvik said.

Worse, dispatchers rarely get closure. Once the call is over it’s on to the next one, and unless the responding officer stops in to let them know what happened, they may never find out.

“It’s like the last chapter is missing,” Jonsgaard said.

This can be especially hard with it comes to talking people off the ledge. And unfortunately, they’re not always successful.

“The hardest is 16-year-old kids,” Huggenvik said.

Winona County Sheriff Ron Ganrude said the job dispatchers do is absolutely vital to ensuring not only the public’s safety but that of the officers as well.

“They are so important. They give us an idea of what we’re going into,” he said. “They are our lifeline.”

But while Ganrude, Williams and LaValla stressed the dispatcher’s importance to modern law enforcement, it remains an under-appreciated job that in Minnesota is still considered clerical.

“The biggest disservice to this industry is that we’re classified as clerical,” LaValla said.

It would seem others would agree. A bill currently working its way to the U.S. Congress called The 9-1-1 SAVES Act would reclassify dispatchers as first responders.

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