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Violence, threats reveal dangers faced by emergency workers

FARGO--There was trouble at Fargo's detox center June 18. Police officers called to the facility were met by two female workers. They said a man being held in one of the cells had been uttering death threats for hours and pounding on the heavy me...

Emergency workers face a variety of threats on the job. This photo is of a suspect who was wounded in an exchange of gunfire with police following a robbery in Fargo in June of 2015. Forum file photo.
Almost 75 percent of workplace assaults occur in health care settings, highlighting the dangers emergency personnel face on a daily basis. In this Forum file photo, F-M Ambulance workers wheel a victim in a four-car rear-ender in May 2006 in Fargo.

FARGO-There was trouble at Fargo's detox center June 18.

Police officers called to the facility were met by two female workers.

They said a man being held in one of the cells had been uttering death threats for hours and pounding on the heavy metal door of his cell so hard they feared it would break open.

One employee who hid in the bathroom until police arrived told officers she was convinced the man planned to hunt her down and kill her.

She also called her supervisor to say she was done and was leaving her post for safety reasons.

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The man accused of making the threats, Dickie Lee Demerey, also known as Richard Lee Demery and Richard Allan Demery, of Belcourt, N.D., was arrested and taken to jail, where he remains behind bars on Cass County District Court charges of terrorizing for allegedly threatening to stab the two detox workers.

The case underscores the dangers emergency workers face every day, particularly in the health care and law enforcement arenas.

And the threat is growing, according to professionals in both fields..

"You see it a lot in the emergency rooms, ambulance personnel who are called to the scene," said Cherie Clark, is an assistant Cass County state's attorney whose job includes making charging decisions in cases where emergency workers are assaulted, or threatened with harm while performing their duties.

North Dakota prosecutors have a variety of charging tools to choose from; including the terrorizing statute employed in the detox case.

Other charging options include simple assault on a peace officer and simple assault on an emergency worker.

Clark said workers in certain types of jobs understand they may encounter difficult individuals in the course of their work, but some behaviors cross the line.

"They (emergency workers) most certainly are not paid to be threatened by drunk people and have their family or their home threatened. They're not paid enough to have to put up with that," Clark said.

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Statutes with language specifically addressing violence toward emergency workers have been on the books for decades, but Clark said cases appear to be on the rise.

The reason isn't clear, but it may be a reflection of the area's growing population, she said.

"It goes hand in hand with the use of drugs and alcohol, but you see it mostly with alcohol."

When caregivers become targets

An article published earlier this year in the New England Journal of Medicine states that between 2011 and 2013 workplace assaults averaged about 24,000 annually, with almost 75 percent occurring in health care settings.

The report said the few studies that have looked for ways to reduce such attacks stress the "unlikelihood" of finding a simple solution to preventing the violence.

Clark said arresting and charging people who assault or threaten emergency workers may not always result in prison sentences, but she said it can help get people into treatment and provide ongoing monitoring.

"It's one of our tools to really wake these people up and have them realize the consequence of their decision to drink or be under the influence," she said, adding the message to offenders is: "We have a felony hanging over your head and you should probably get the treatment that you need so you don't put others at risk."

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That risk was made clear one day in early July, when F-M Ambulance transported a man who appeared to be intoxicated to Essentia Health in Fargo.

After checking the man's vitals, a female medical worker was reaching over the man to secure a cord when the man punched the worker in the cheek with a closed fist.

Then he stood up and punched a second female worker in the head, causing her pain.

Those details are found in a Cass County District Court case pending against Tyler C. Williams of Fargo, who faces two counts of simple assault on an emergency worker.

Brady Scribner, emergency preparedness manager for Essentia, said violent or potentially violent situations have been on the rise. In the 16 or so years Essentia's south Fargo hospital has been operating, security staff have had to discharge Tasers on only two occasions and both occurred in the last year, he said.

Scribner said it's important for workers to know that abuse from patients or their families-physical or verbal-is not acceptable. Essentia has taken steps to help employees address issues, including offering training to help staff recognize and defuse potentially dangerous situations.

If an incident does occur, he said Essentia supports employees in pursuing all options open to them, including bringing criminal charges.

Whenever a potential problem is detected at Essentia, a threat management team is quickly assembled to collect information, notify law enforcement and come up with a plan to protect staff and patients.

"A lot of times, just that information-collecting process eliminates a threat," Scribner said.

Sherm Syverson, senior director of F-M Ambulance Service, agreed that training and preparedness can often defuse dangerous situations before they reach a boiling point.

"If there's even a hint there could be a violent interaction, we will allow time for law enforcement to get there," Syverson said. "Usually, we can predict which situations are more tense than others."

He added that the 35 to 45 students who train with F-M Ambulance each year receive education on how to evaluate situations for threats.

Kick in the head

Syverson said a disruptive person can be reasoned with about nine times out of 10, even if they're intoxicated. "If you just show them some kindness and compassion."

In one recent incident, however, kindness was in short supply when an ambulance worker who was securing a patient for transport was kicked in the head for his trouble.

The worker missed two shifts due to the injury and the incident caused other issues that complicated the worker's life for some time, Syverson said.

"When they (patients) do cause harm, it takes time to recover from those things," Syverson said, adding that the ambulance setting presents unique safety challenges.

"That's an enclosed space, not a lot of room," he said. "Driving down the road and seat belted in, you're literally a sitting target."

Training plays a major role in violence prevention at Sanford Medical Center in Fargo, said Susan Jarvis, executive director of emergency, trauma and critical care services.

A national trend of growing violence in the workplace has prompted Sanford to overhaul its training regimens and to pay closer attention to who receives training, Jarvis said.

She said workers identified as being at risk receive specialized education in managing aggressive behaviors, as well as training on how to subdue unruly individuals safely.

Sanford has also set up behavioral health rapid response teams that are comprised of doctors, security personnel and nurses.

"That is something we've really seen a lot of success with," she said. Anytime serious violence or threats of violence occur, "we're going to get the police involved," she said.

But in the world of emergency response, even the police are not immune from harm.

One high-profile death involving a law enforcement officer was that of Christopher Dewey, a Mahnomen County sheriff's deputy who was shot in February 2009 during a standoff with a man who had binged on drugs and alcohol. He later died.

Another was the death of Fargo police Officer Jason Moszer, who was shot and killed earlier this year after responding to a domestic call.

The man who killed Moszer, Marcus Schumacher, killed himself in a standoff with police.

Resources stretched thin

Suicide calls are extremely dangerous and extremely complicated runs to handle, said Moorhead police Lt. Tory Jacobson, who said the Moorhead Police Department's already taxed resources are being stretched even thinner by a rise in such calls.

In July of last year, for example, Moorhead police responded to 25 potential suicide calls.

The number of suicide calls last month was 45. The picture was similar for the months of March, April and June, with suicide calls nearly double what they were a year ago.

"It's these types of calls and similar (mental health) calls that pose more dangerous situations for officers," Jacobson said.

While assaultive behavior can be traumatic for emergency workers, the detox employee who fled her job in terror this past June eventually returned, said Jan Eliassen, director of the Withdrawal Management Unit of Fargo Cass Public Health, the more formal name of Fargo's detox center.

"I'm so grateful that she did stay," Eliassen said of the employee who returned. She understands how unsettling certain situations can be for those who work at the center.

"They are so good at what they do. They show up and face things that not a lot of people would like to face at work," said Eliassen, who is also director of the Gladys Ray Shelter and Veterans Drop-In Center

Eliassen said that while violent incidents at the detox center aren't necessarily growing in number, the intensity is ratcheting up.

"The person (being brought in) may have a history of being a volatile, or posing some significant threat wherever they go," she said.

A room in the Fargo Detox Center
The Fargo detox center, which has rooms controlled by heavy metal doors, has been the scene of threatening behavior toward detox staff. Forum file photo.

I'm a reporter and a photographer and sometimes I create videos to go with my stories.

I graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead and in my time with The Forum I have covered a number of beats, from cops and courts to business and education.

I've also written about UFOs, ghosts, dinosaur bones and the planet Pluto.

You may reach me by phone at 701-241-5555, or by email at dolson@forumcomm.com
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