As an angry Souris River pounds against its reinforced, man-made banks, thousands of Minot and Ward County residents go to sleep every night trusting that should disaster strike in the middle of the night, they will receive an emergency notification call from Minot Central Dispatch.
Longtime Minot native Lt. Steve Whitesell of the Minot Police Department is the man with the unenviable task of making sure that very system is operational in order to preserve the safety of the Magic City.
Not at all unlike the famous literary wizard who urged, "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain," Whitesell seems to have little interest in being singled out for any particular power he might wield. Instead, he prefers to exercise this vigilance out of the same regard for the community's well-being he has demonstrated for 22 years as a member of the police department.
Whitesell said his mother and father came to Minot with the Air Force during his childhood, with his father retiring here.
"My mom's from Newfoundland, and my dad's from upstate New York," he said Thursday. "I actually went to high school here at Minot High and graduated. Then I went into the service myself."
Whitesell spent a few years in Holland before returning stateside, totaling nine years in the Air Force.
"I was hired onto the police department here in 1989," he said. From there, promotion to sergeant came along in 2004, then to lieutenant in 2008.
"With the exception of a very brief stint in records, I've worked patrol the whole time," Whitesell said.
Whitesell took over as administrative lieutenant and Ward County 911 coordinator with the promotion of then-Lt. Rob White to captain in late 2010.
"I'm relatively new to this job, I'm still trying to learn it," Whitesell said. "I'm fortunate that I've got Rob there to fall back on - he's pretty smart, and he knows the job inside and out."
Although he said he didn't have any specialized communications training previously, Whitesell said that has historically been the case with incoming 911 coordinators in Minot.
"As a matter of fact, I think any of the guys that had worked in this - if you go back to Dennis Smetana, Fred Debowey, Rob White - first and foremost, they're cops," he said. "I thought it would be an interesting aspect of law enforcement that I haven't been involved in."
Whitesell said that as the 911 coordinator, he is primarily in charge of 911-addressing the Ward County area outside of Minot.
"So if you have somebody who lives out in a rural area, and they want a 911 address, they contact me, and I assign that address to them," he said. He is also responsible for updates to the CityWatch system, the reverse 911 notification which has been in the news of late.
"We get that (CityWatch) information compiled, and then it's sent off to Bullberry Systems in Bismarck that actually does the mapping portion of it, and that's why it takes a little bit of time," Whitesell said.
However, the city only receives listings of people with a physical address. Anyone utilizing a post office box to receive their mail needs to register their location with dispatch so that they can be notified.
"We get listings for landlines with (Souris River Telecommunications) and with (Reservation Telephone Cooperative), and cell phones with SRT," Whitesell said. "But when you start talking about the other carriers, if you have a phone that you want added, live in Ward County and have a physical address it's billed to, then contact us and we can add that information in there."
For anyone who utilizes a PO box for address privacy, Whitesell said there should be no concern, as addresses registered with the 911 system remain under the strictest of confidence.
"As a matter of fact, we're prohibited by law from releasing that information," he said.
Once the decision has been made to utilize CityWatch, the system is activated by selecting an area on a map at a dispatch computer, and recording the message to go out to the phones registered there.
But with the urgency of the current flooding situation, the "little bit of time" for addressing and listing information to get from Minot Central to Bullberry and back has Whitesell looking for more immediate solutions.
"We're looking at the possibilities of expediting that," Whitesell said. "The alternative would just be for this contingency, where we've actually developed evacuation zones for the city. It would be useful for this, but it's still important that people go ahead and register those phones if they're not with SRT or RTC."
Another priority will be obtaining a new radio base station, as the current system became overloaded in the first hours of the current flood crisis. After about 20 minutes, the main base station reset itself, he said.
"Luckily, we have another frequency we can go to," Whitesell said.
Whitesell said he is aware there were complaints at a recent county commission meeting that no reverse-911 calls went out to Apple Grove-area residents when water backed up into that area a few weeks ago.
"I couldn't speak to that, I don't know any of the particulars of the specific complaints," he said.
(Prairie Profile is a weekly feature profiling interesting people in our region. We welcome suggestions from our readers. Call Regional Editor Eloise Ogden at 857-1944 or Managing Editor Kent Olson at 857-1939. Either can be reached at 1-800-735-3229. You also can send e-mail suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.)