Dispatchers demonstrate poise under pressure amid shootout

September 18, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

Dominique Hill, Felicia Moore and Janelle Knight (from left) were on duty as Issaquah Police Department communications specialists when gunman Ronald W. Ficker set off across downtown Issaquah on Sept. 24, 2011. By Greg Farrar

The callers punching 911 into cellphones on Sept. 24, 2011, a bright Saturday darkened as a gunman stalked across downtown Issaquah, heard a calm voice amid the chaos.

In the hours after the gunman set across from a downtown intersection to Clark Elementary School, communications specialists at the Issaquah Police Department fielded a tsunami of calls.

In the tumult, a trio of dispatchers — including a recent addition to the team — attempted to assuage panicked citizens and advise the officers at the scene.

The voices citizens and officers heard on the line came from Dominique Hill, Janelle Knight and Felicia Moore.

“It’s our job to be calm. We learn in our training to just stay in the moment and deal with it as it comes,” Moore said. “We know if we panic or we have any sort of breakdown, it’s going to cause a breakdown in communication.”

The communications center team arrived for a 12-hour shift at 6 a.m. Knight started at the police department a day earlier, and intended to hang back throughout the shift for training.

Time started to blur just after 11 a.m. as Ronald W. Ficker abandoned a rented Kia on a downtown street and retrieved a pair of rifles and more than 900 rounds of ammunition from the trunk. Callers later directed police to Ficker at the Clark campus.

Timeline

In September 2011, Issaquah police officers encountered gunman Ronald W. Ficker in a series of strange incidents before the fatal shootout at Clark Elementary School.

Sept. 15

11:31 p.m. — Ficker stops at Issaquah City Hall and requests assistance from a police officer after ranting about saving the planet. Police confiscate a handgun from Ficker and log the incident.

Sept. 23

Ficker rents a silver Kia Forte sedan from a Seattle rental car counter near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Sept. 24

9:39 a.m. — Officer Laura Asbell encounters the abandoned Kia along Interstate 90 in Issaquah. The vehicle is out of gas, and as Asbell surveys the area before calling dispatchers to request information, Ficker then returns. Dispatchers tell Asbell about the Sept. 15 incident before she clears the call.

11:11 a.m. — The vehicle runs out of gas again on Front Street at the Julius Boehm Pool and Newport Way Southwest. Ficker pulls a pair of rifles from the sedan and heads through downtown.

11:38 a.m. — Police encounter Ficker on the Clark Elementary School campus after a caller, later identified as Liberty High School cross country coach Michael Smith, said the gunman attempted to break into a driver’s education car.

11:39 a.m. — The shootout starts between Ficker and Issaquah police. He is struck five times during several minutes of shooting.

Issaquah officers led the charge. Cpl. Christian Muñoz, and officers Laura Asbell, Brian Horn and Jesse Petersen raced to contain Ficker on the Clark campus. Police fatally shot him just before noon.

Next to the elementary school, Issaquah High School hosted about 100 players, coaches and spectators at a youth football game. The balmy temperature and early autumn sunshine lured people outside to nearby trails and sidewalks.

Ficker fired at a bystander and officers as communications specialists maintained a steady stream of information to police.

“It’s about constantly updating them with where he is at the time, where he was last seen, if he was around people, and then taking the information of where each individual officer is and sharing that with other officers,” Hill said.

‘It was red alert’

Knight remembered the atmosphere in the communications center as “pure focus” as the stakes inched higher.

“It was like breathing, in the sense that Dominique was on the air, and she was documenting like crazy and just kept going,” she said. “There was no question. You’re not answering phones? Felicia and I got it. We didn’t even ever say those things out loud.”

In the job interview, officials described Issaquah to Knight, a former Snohomish County dispatcher, as a quiet city defined by routine calls and not many major incidents.

Knight, still a strange voice to other police department personnel, called off-duty officers to tell them to report to work to relieve the officers involved in the shootout.

The scene as personnel flooded the room felt “like a family coming together,” Knight recalled.

“It didn’t matter what they were in the middle of,” she continued. “They were on duty within drive time from wherever they were.”

Usually, communications specialists answer 911 and nonemergency lines, respond to calls for service, dispatch officers, run traffic stops and complete a lot of paperwork.

Initially, calls about a stalled Kia on Front Street South seemed unremarkable.

“It started out as a fairly routine traffic hazard call,” Moore said. “Send officers out there to see what’s going on. From there, it just sort of escalated and got crazy.”

Earlier in the day, Asbell had encountered Ficker and the Kia on the Interstate 90 Sunset Interchange. Soon, dispatchers connected the stalled vehicle downtown to the previous meeting.

“How many silver Kias with a California plate are really going to be contacted multiple times?” Knight said.

Then, as a rifle-toting Ficker crossed downtown Issaquah and reached the Clark campus, routine calls ceased.

“I think the city has a real sense of when it’s not a good time to call and complain about your neighbor’s parked car,” Hill said.

The most distraught calls came from parents of children at Issaquah High and people trapped beneath the bleachers at the football field. Police shepherded the crowd at the football game beneath the bleachers during the shootout.

“It was red alert for most parents who had kids in the area,” Knight said.

‘Get the basics out’

Throughout the incident, the communications specialists needed to maintain a careful balance amid the unyielding calls.

On the Web

The Issaquah Press started covering the incident moments after the initial 911 calls. Find complete coverage at http://bit.ly/Li2pPK.

“They want information, which is completely understandable, but from an officer safety standpoint and from a citizen safety standpoint, we’re just not allowed to divulge that kind of information in the middle of an incident,” Hill said. “You never know how people are going to react like that.”

Meanwhile, the team continued to convey information to officers at the scene. Ficker’s circuitous path made the task difficult, and early on, police believed the incident involved more than a lone gunman.

The most important factor for police in such incidents is similar to the old real estate agent’s adage: location, location, location.

“In the heat of the moment, their hearing becomes extremely selective and they’re under a great deal of pressure, they’re talking to citizens as I’m trying to relay them information,” Hill said.

The officers remained calm — so calm Asbell “sounded like she could have been ordering pizza,” Hill recalled.

Colleagues said Knight slipped easily into a routine, despite learning the Issaquah landscape and department procedures on the fly.

“She was a perfect mimic,” Hill said. “She pretty much listened to what Felicia was saying, listened to what I was saying and then started taking calls, adding new information or things people were saying if it was relevant, or reassuring them.”

Knight stayed nonplussed and applied a laserlike focus to the calls, even as information remained scarce.

“We didn’t have the time to go on and on about anything,” she said. “We just had to get the basics out.”

In the hours after the shootout, after the 12-hour shift ended, Hill turned to boxing — “my own personal brand of stress relief,” she said — to unwind.

“I called my sparring partner and he was really cool about it,” she said. “He’s like, ‘Need to pound something?’ And I’m like, ‘Yup, and you’re the victim.’”

The what-ifs lingered into the months ahead for the communications center team.

“For me, my whole body was tense and I was so tired, but my brain wouldn’t shut down,” Moore said.

‘A vital role in saving lives’

In August, city leaders honored the officers and communications specialists involved in the incident.

The recognition capped a hectic period in the months after the shootout. Even as Muñoz, Asbell, Horn and Petersen received the state Law Enforcement Medal of Honor, a prosecutor-led inquest into the incident loomed.

In late May, inquest jurors needed only 19 minutes to determine the officers faced a life-threatening scenario and appropriately used lethal force.

Recognition from U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, a former King County sheriff and Auburn Republican, and the National Association of Police Organizations highlighted the officers, too.

The communications specialists remained hidden from the spotlight until last month, as Mayor Ava Frisinger and City Council members honored the officers and dispatchers involved in the case.

“Our brave officers put an end to those threats using detailed information that was skillfully relayed to them via our communications specialists in Issaquah’s 911 center,” Frisinger said in remarks at the Aug. 6 council meeting. “That detail, I am sure, helped officers get to where the gunman was and, again, played a vital role in saving lives.”

Though grateful for the recognition, Hill is modest about the role the communications specialists performed in the shootout.

“I felt like the focus and the recognition — not to downplay the role we play or what we do — but in certain incidences, we should just stand back and give credit where it’s due, and that’s absolutely to the officers,” she said. “I wasn’t out there with bullets flying over my head. I was sitting in dispatch trying to do my best to make sure they knew where the bad guy was to get everybody where they needed to be.”

The shared experience pulled the communications specialists closer together. They morphed into what they call “off-duty friends” in addition to colleagues.

“I think that it’s just part of human nature that when you share something that has an impact that a month from now, a year from now, 10 years from now, there’s going to be points of that incident that really stick out in your mind,” Hill said. “Our voices are just part of that.”

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