- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 18, 2017

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) - Twenty-two years as a Vigo County emergency dispatcher helped prepare Vickie Oster for the threats of violence against Terre Haute North Vigo High School that shook the area for hours on April 7.

She was one of four dispatchers on duty in Central Dispatch when she handled a call from a teen or man calling himself Michael and threatening to detonate pipe bombs and shoot people in the school.

The call did not sound like the standard prank or bomb threat.

“Most of the time, they say, ‘There’s a bomb here’ and they hang up on you,” Oster told the Tribune-Star on April 12 as she recounted her nearly 45 minutes on the phone with the suspect.

But the young man was talkative, and Oster - whose grandson is a student at North - calmly kept him on the phone and talking.

As it turned out, police searched the school and did not find a gunman or bombs. But at the time, no one was treating the incident like a hoax. They couldn’t.

“From some of the things he said, I’m thinking to myself, this doesn’t make sense,” Oster said of her conversation. “But we have to treat everything like it’s true until it’s proven otherwise.”

The caller mispronounced the name of the city twice, saying Terre Hoot instead of Terre Haute, she noted. And he seemed unaware of the police response to the school soon after he made the call.

“He kept asking, ‘Are there police there?’ and I’m thinking there were so many police there, there is no way he could not have known that,” she said recalling the conversation.

“But then I’m (also) thinking, maybe he really is in a bathroom where he can’t see anything.”

Oster said she relied on her experience as she tried to keep Michael on the phone.

“We don’t really do negotiation training. That’s more of the police side,” she said. “But I have been around enough that I was just trying to keep him on the phone. I knew if I kept him on the phone, he wasn’t going to be talking to me while he was going out and possibly shooting people.”

Since the call originally went to the information desk and was then transferred to 911, there was no identifying phone number, she explained. She had no way to verify if the caller was actually inside the school.

A recording of the 911 call was released by city police. It is available online at www.tribstar.com.

A dispatcher named Joey answers the call. Then there is a pause before Oster takes over.

Oster has muted her microphone and is relaying information to other dispatchers so they can send an emergency response to the school. She began typing information from the caller into her computer-aided dispatch program that let other dispatchers see it and send it to the appropriate personnel on scene.

To assist, Chief Deputy John Moats and Major Jeff Fox from the sheriff’s department came into the dispatch center, as did 911 director Rob McMullen.

They were monitoring the situation and helping get resources to the high school.

“Our dispatch center doesn’t stop because we have this going on. We have other calls coming in,” Oster said.

Oster kept the caller on the phone for almost 45 minutes. By then, police were inside the school, looking for the caller and his purported co-conspirator “Sam,” who the caller said had a gun and bombs.

Outside the school, dozens of parents had showed up and were waiting for updates.

Oster said that even after her shift ended, she stayed. Her grandson was inside the school, and she did not know his status.

“I stayed here because I felt like I was going to get the most up-to-date information here,” she said.

Looking back, she said she is grateful for all of the support the dispatch center and the responding agencies received from the public and surrounding agencies who helped respond to local calls. Off-duty dispatchers also came in to fill in and help.

“People don’t realize how we coordinate and get everybody to where they need to be and get them the information they need to have,” she said.

“They go out to one scene, and that’s what they focus on. We still have calls coming in. We still have people having heart attacks and people having accidents.”

Oddly enough, National Telecommunicators Week was this month.

“I’m giving a shout out to all telecommunicators, because we are really behind the scenes,” she said. “People don’t think about who takes the call and who puts out the information.”

Terre Haute Police Chief John Plasse has often expressed his appreciation for Oster and the dispatch center.

Vickie did an excellent job trying to keep the caller talking and get us information we needed,” Plasse said. “She didn’t lose her composure. She kept her cool.”

Plasse said the investigation into the call continues. He said the arrest April 11 of a person in West Terre Haute who possessed bomb materials does not appear to be related.

“It’s probably not related,” Plasse said. “We’re not ruling it out. It just doesn’t seem to fit what we know.”

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Source: (Terre Haute) Tribune-Star, https://bit.ly/2pdHA0I

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Information from: Tribune-Star, https://www.tribstar.com

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