By Ellen Thompson/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Twenty-two emergency dispatchers, including one from Hill County, became the first dispatchers in Montana and Wyoming to complete training to work with SWAT teams.
Twenty dispatchers from 10 different counties in Montana and two dispatchers from southwestern Wyoming trained together from Wednesday through Saturday at the Hill County Electric Cooperative building. Tammy Smith, a tactical dispatcher for the Mountain View-Palo Alto SWAT - or Specials Weapons and Tactics - team in California, instructed the class. Smith travels around the nation training dispatchers to work along with SWAT teams or in other tactical situations.
"Go! Go! Go! They're giving out information over there!" Smith yelled Saturday morning, the first day that the dispatchers worked with a real tactical team.
With Smith's reminder, the dispatchers began to fill the role they'd been training for, working at a command site during a tactical operation. One dispatcher joined the tactical team to find out the names of the officers and to listen to them plan. The rest of the dispatchers began writing down information from the crime scene as it developed, then fed it to the SWAT team when it was needed.
Training began Wednesday, when the group watched videos, learned background material and discussed the reasons for tactical dispatching. On Thursday, dispatchers did desk work and on Friday they began to practice scenarios while still working at a desk. Scenarios included hostage situations involving disgruntled workers, mentally disturbed transients and custody battles.
On Saturday the training moved outside.
Saturday's command center was a mid-sized trailer owned by the Chouteau County Sheriff's Office. The trailer was parked in front of the co-op building. In the day's first scenario, two women who had been fired from their jobs for failed drug tests returned with guns and took hostages. In reality, this and all other information comes from the initial 911 phone call and then through interviews with witnesses, escaped hostages, and other employees from the business. During the simulations, Smith fed the information to the trainees as though it has just come in.
During the first scenario, a real world event was incorporated. A carpet cleaner arrived to work inside the building, which was surrounded by four men in fatigues, carrying unloaded weapons.
The dispatchers logged the arrival of the carpet cleaner. One dispatcher warned the man about the exercises, while another one told the tactical team leader, who was at the command center radioed the information to his team.
Adaptability is an important aspect of the techniques that Smith teaches. Dispatchers worked with pen and paper behind the trailer, a low-tech setup. They taped up a diagram of the building, a log of the information that came in and a list of resources available to the SWAT team, writing on them in pen and using stickers to keep track of the tactical team's movements.
Smith explained how important it is that dispatchers learn to integrate into tactical situations, which is a fairly new development in policing: "Dispatchers, historically, are good at multi-tasking. We've just brought them out of the center and into the command post. They get information and they give information."
The techniques Smith teaches, which she developed along with Ben Tisa, a retired FBI agent, rely on very little technology. They don't require electricity, she said, because electricity might not be available. Dispatchers make use of "papers, pencils and portables," Smith said.
Kimberly Burdick, communication supervisor for the Choteau County Sheriff's Office in Fort Benton, organized the training session. "This has been a year and a half in the planning," Burdick said. "It was a hard sell. 'What are we going to need that for?'"
For Chouteau County, which sent six dispatchers, as well as a tactically trained officer and a hostage negotiator, there is one answer, at least.
"We're gearing up for Lewis and Clark bicentennial events," Chouteau County dispatcher Jodie Butler said.
While six of Chouteau County's seven dispatchers were in Havre for training, deputies were operating the county's dispatch center, Butler said.
Counties without any immediate plans to host a large event also took advantage of the training.
"It's great training for any type of a large incident" Burdick said.
The training cost $275 per student, with each participating department footing the bill, Burdick said.
While few counties have a SWAT team, many counties, including Hill and Chouteau, have tactically trained officers who would fill the role of a SWAT team when necessary.
Saturday's tactical team included three members of the U.S. Border Patrol based in Havre, Hill County chief sheriff's deputy Monte Reichelt, and an officer from the Chouteau County Sheriff's Office.
"This is a piecemeal SWAT team. But the advantage is that it simulates a mutual-aid response," Burdick said.
The Montana dispatchers were from Chouteau, Sweet Grass, Sheridan, Meagher, Gallatin, Missoula, Valley, Lincoln and Beaverhead counties. One dispatcher, Jami Binder, represented the Hill County Sheriff's Office.
Two dispatchers from the Green River Police Department in Wyoming traveled 772 miles to train in Havre.
"This was the first time we'd ever seen a tactical operation," Green River police dispatcher Jackie Brockelsby said.
The Havre Police Department did not send any dispatchers to the training.
"We had decided that the school was primarily geared to sending dispatchers into the field, something that we would not do and that we do not want to do," Assistant Police Chief George Tate said. "The cost of the school, combined with what the school teaches, meant that it wasn't practical for us to send someone."