July 18, 2019

Dispatchers play vital role in standoff

BANGOR – Friday nights are always the busiest for Penobscot County dispatchers, but most nights don’t involve a life-or-death situation as it did on July 14.

What started that evening as a suicide threat made by a Millinocket woman escalated into a two-hour standoff and became even more dangerous when the woman turned her 20-gauge shotgun on police.

Two dispatchers, Erin Coombs and Tim Hall, serving as the only link between the woman and police on the scene, talked her out of committing suicide and, after two hours, convinced her to surrender peacefully to the officers outside her apartment, even after she fired one shot at them.

“My heart was in my throat, and I shook afterward for 15 minutes,” Coombs admitted last week, recalling the difficult situation.

The dispatchers often stay for 12-hour shifts, working in the basement of the Bangor District Courthouse known as the dungeon. It’s a dimly lit, cramped room filled with desks, multiple flat-screen computers on each.

Coombs, 26, has worked in the dungeon for more than a year and a half after leaving a job at a group home for children where she dealt with crisis-intervention issues, an experience that no doubt stood her in good stead the night of the 14th.

Hall, 25, has worked in the dispatch center for three years and is a Carmel firefighter and emergency medical technician.

Around 9 that night, a woman who was crying, upset and apparently drunk called dispatch to tell them she wanted to kill herself. She reached Coombs.

Coombs had never been involved in a suicide threat, let alone a standoff.

“I got nervous and scared for her. My adrenaline pumped, and I was focused,” Coombs recalled.

Although every dispatcher goes through 14 weeks of training, it was intuition and experience that helped her through the heart-wrenching incident.

“There is no standard procedure, you just have to feel them out,” she said.

Once the call came in, Coombs worked with fellow dispatchers to get police and ambulance crews to the woman’s apartment.

The other five dispatchers in the room took over Coombs’ channels and kept in contact with police for the duration of the standoff.

“We are all in tune with each other,” Coombs said. “Everyone played their role.”

Millinocket police, dealing with a dangerous predicament, established a security perimeter and evacuated some residents. They could not evacuate the woman’s neighbors in the apartment building, however, because of the volatile situation.

The Maine State Police, East Millinocket police and officers from other agencies arrived on scene, Millinocket Police Chief Donald Bolduc said.

Coombs talked with the woman for 10 minutes before she unexpectedly hung up. She called again, and Coombs answered, again talking to the woman, discussing her friends and family and urging her not to hurt herself. The pattern continued for almost 30 minutes.

“With a call like that, I don’t get frustrated, I feel empathy for her,” Coombs said. Then the unthinkable – and, to Coombs, the unknown – happened.

Police reported shots were fired from the woman’s apartment.

“I thought she did it, because she said she was going to do it. It was tough, and I was upset,” Coombs said, adding that she decided at that point to take a break to compose herself after thinking the worst had occurred.

It took Hall and Coombs a week to learn that the shot, although it injured no one, was fired at police.

After Coombs left, the phone rang again. Hall picked up and heard the woman on the phone.

Hall had to start fresh. He didn’t know what Coombs and the woman had discussed, and he didn’t know whom she had tried to shoot.

“I tried to gain information – while pulling my hair out at the same time,” Hall recalled, smiling at the memory. “Somehow I managed to gain a rapport. Thank God I did.”

Hall had never dealt with a standoff situation.

“Life experiences, personality and training played a big role in getting me through this,” he said.

Over the next hour to 90 minutes – Hall admitted his eyes weren’t on the clock – the woman called back four or five times. She would drop the telephone on her bed, then pick it up again to talk to the dispatcher.

Hall admitted he had to “grasp at straws” to persuade the woman to leave her apartment peacefully.

He found himself becoming frustrated, he admitted.

“The wheel kept going up the hill, then she would come back, and the wheel would come down the hill,” Hall said.

One final time, Hall heard the woman drop the telephone on her bed. He sat at his desk with his headset on, waiting.

Police then told dispatchers the woman had surrendered and they had her in custody.

“I breathed a sigh of relief … and waited for the next call,” said Hall, who had eight hours left in his shift that night.

Millinocket authorities said last week they were investigating the incident and may charge the woman. After her surrender, police took her to Millinocket Regional Hospital.

After the two-hour standoff ended peacefully, Millinocket police congratulated the room of six for their efforts.

The unexpected praise caught the two dispatchers by surprise.

“When you got a sergeant [Sgt. Jerry Cox] calling and saying good job and ‘you did an awesome job,’ it is better than a pay raise,” Coombs said.

BDN writer Nick Sambides Jr. contributed to this report.

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