ST. ANTHONY – A woman officials believe to be the Gem State’s longest serving dispatcher recently retired from the Fremont County Sheriff’s office.
Shannon Rydalch worked as a dispatcher for 26 years in Madison County and another 14 years in Fremont County. Rydalch started her career not long after she graduated from high school and hasn’t worked at another job since then.
Fremont County Sheriff Len Humphries says that from all indications, Rydalch has the distinction of being Idaho’s longest serving dispatcher on record.
“That’s what I understand. That’s what I’ve been told by various officials,” he said.
Rydalch has loved her job, never grew tired of it and always came away feeling like she had truly accomplished something every single day, she said.
“It’s something that when you get off work, most of the time, you felt like you made a big difference,” Rydalch said.
In her four decades of taking emergency calls, Rydalch has dealt with everything from murders to kidnappings to hostage situations to suicidal people.
“I can’t think of anything, other than a terrorist attack, that I haven’t had to handle,” she said.
The most difficult calls involved those where young children are in danger. The worst one Rydalch received came from a young mother whose baby died while the mom frantically spoke to Rydalch. This was long before dispatch had mapping systems that now easily track where calls are coming from.
“I had an hysterical woman on the phone crying ‘My baby’s dying, my baby’s dying.’ I heard the baby take its last breath on the phone. I couldn’t get that women to tell me her location,” she said.
“The woman kept saying ‘My baby’s dead.’ It took two or three minutes to get her to tell me her location. By the time the ambulance got there, there was no way they could resuscitate the baby.”
Another included the attempted murder of a step-father by his step-daughter and her boyfriend while the older man was in Island Park.
“The daughter and her boyfriend hired somebody to come up and shoot her stepfather, and I was on by myself. I had the step-father on the phone,” she said. “We got everything taken care of. We got the shooter. I was just a mess, but I had the satisfaction that I had done a good job.”
No day is ever the same, and neither is every 911 call. Each time Rydalch answers, she has no idea what she may soon be dealing with. She’s had weekends where nothing has happened but has experienced weekday afternoons where all hell broke loose.
“You can go have a Saturday night and nothing, but on Monday, at noon, everything is absolutely crazy,” she said.
There have been calls where people have complained about their neighbors’ dogs barking in the middle of the day. Other calls have involved someone unable to get their child to come home.
“We’ll ask ‘Are they a runaway?’ and they’ll say ‘No. They don’t like what I’m cooking, so they won’t come home’,” she said.
Rydalch recalled working during a blizzard when a Minnesota mother called dispatch about her college-aged son.
“Rexburg didn’t have anything open 24 hours a day. She called and said ‘My son has a headache and is in a dorm. He doesn’t want to go out and get cold. Can you go out and buy him an aspirin and take care of him?’” she said.
Rydalch politely declined.
She remembers receiving a phone call from an elderly woman convinced that her neighbor was watching her via his computer. When he wasn’t doing that, the woman believed he was crawling under her house and spying on her.
“She said he was watching her use the bathroom,” Rydalch said.
Another instance involved another senior citizen suffering from dementia and who was convinced aliens had invaded her house.
“The officers would go to her home two or three times a night. She would say ‘You can’t see them can you? They’re there watching you and laughing at you,’’’ she claimed.
Often dispatchers receive repeated calls from the same residents.
“There are people we go to almost on a daily basis with problems. The one time we don’t go, is the time they’re really in trouble. We have to treat (all) calls as if it was their most important call,” she said.
Rydalch always tells new dispatchers that those dialing 911 are calling for a reason.
“Even though we think it’s silly, it’s important to that person. We treat them like it’s important,” she said.
Despite having worked as a dispatcher for 40 years, Rydalch said every day was about on-the-job training and developing new skills.
“I have never learned my job completely. There’s not a typical phone call that comes in. At least once a week somebody would call me, and I would have to know that quickly what to do,” she said. “Maybe it would be something I’d never handled before or maybe it was something like ‘I came across a moose caught in a cattle guard, what should I do? It’s suffering.’ I have to know immediately what to tell that person to do,” she said.
Dispatchers need to know what to say immediately. There’s no humming or hawing during any call, Rydalch said.
“It’s not ‘Ugh, let me look that up.’ You have to just go with your gut feeling and know. You never learn your job. There’s nothing typical,” she said.
It’s vital for dispatchers to develop thick skin and to have common sense as most people calling are in a high stress situation. It also helps Rydalch to lean on a Higher Power in knowing what to do, she said.
While not a member of any particular church, Rydalch believes in God and says she often prays in her own way when trying to help someone in distress.
“I’ve said ‘Please, Lord’, more than a few times. Especially when a child dies or in drownings or things like that, you’re just ‘Why? Why? Why?’” she said. “I don’t see how an atheist could have my job.”
While the job provides for great joys and extreme disappointments – often in the same day — Rydalch says she’s never grown weary of it. She often worked the graveyard shift and says she didn’t mind doing so.
“I love the night shifts. I’ve been a night owl my entire life. I would trade to work night shifts. I think a lot of that has to do with me staying in the job as long as I have. I have not been rotating,” she said.
Humphries says that he greatly appreciated Rydalch working the graveyard shift.
“Shannon has been a very reliable dispatcher for many years. She loved to work nights. It’s a shift a lot of people do not like to work. It has been a great asset to have her work the night shifts,” he said.
Rydalch says that she was able to work the night shifts because she didn’t have a family at home.
“I don’t know how these young girls work in dispatch with husbands, children and trying to balance them and work shift work. That’s got to add a whole new level of stress.”
Rydalch says she dated lots of wonderful men but was married to her job. She has no regrets and finds a great deal of comfort and satisfaction spending time with her mother, sister, nieces and nephews.
Wanting to spend more time with her family, Rydalch opted to retire. It was also time for a change and to consider taking a trip here and there.
“I would like to travel too. Not big trips just around – mostly driving trips around the area. I’d like to go back to places I’ve been like Washington State. I love Montana,” she said.
Rydalch would also like to spend more time working on her house that she purchased shortly after moving to Fremont County. The house underwent a major overhaul after Rydalch tore out old carpet, removed walls, painted and turned it into her dream home. She also enjoys working in her yard although mowing her lawn is like mowing “Mt. Rydalch.”
Rydalch is also looking forward to the upcoming holidays and in particular, Halloween and Christmas. One room in her home is stocked with holiday decorations.
“The little kids just love my place on Halloween. I have a ghost head that looks like Casper the Ghost. The little kids will say ‘We’ve got to go to Casper’s house,’” she said.
Rydalch also goes all out for Christmas.
“If you sit still in my house for 10 seconds, you’ll get lights and tinsel on you,” she said.
Rydalch also enjoys collecting Christmas houses that she leaves up year round because she enjoys looking at them.
As for her former job, Rydalch says that she’ll miss it, and that she cried during her recent retirement party. She’s greatly enjoyed working as a dispatcher, says she’s worked with great people and that being a dispatcher has proven a rewarding job. Rydalch urges anyone becoming a dispatcher to get as much training as they can.
“Never quit learning,” she said.
Humphries says that Rydalch will be greatly missed.
“She has lots of experience. We will miss her capability in taking care of emergencies on the phone,” he said.
While she’ll miss her job, Rydalch says she’ll spend her retirement concentrating on her family and on traveling.
“It’s time for a new adventure,” she said.