Troopers dealing with fatal accidents

If your own safety, and those of the other motorists on the road, doesn’t concern you enough to drive more safely and carefully as snow and ice has officially brought us to winter, you might want to consider the other people affected by deaths on the roadway.

“Last week was kind of a tough week,” said Capt. Gary Orluck of the North Dakota Highway Patrol’s Minot office in a telephone interview. He added that it can be emotional and stressful on troopers, “without a doubt.”

The Minot branch of the patrol is one of two, the other being the Williston branch, that patrols the northwest region. The region is the deadliest in the state, responsible for more than half of the 133 total deaths reported for the year by Monday afternoon, at 71.

“It’s been a tough few years, actually,” Orluck said. “We’ve been dealing with it a while now.”

It comes with the territory, though.

“Law enforcement is a high-stress career and our troopers deal with it and they deal with it well. But, in repeated instances where you’re dealing with death, it can take its toll,” Orluck added. “We have to look out for the well being and health of our officers, as well.”

Informing the family

Often, readers will see a traffic incident write-up without the name of the deceased being identified. That’s because the media is waiting for the agency to move on to the next aspect of its job.

The trouble for the troopers on county, state and federal roads and highways doesn’t just end with identifying the dead and closing out the scene to prevent additional trouble, but what happens afterward.

If the investigating trooper has time, he’ll have to be the one to inform the family of the death. If not, another trooper will have to take on the role after being briefed on what happened.

“Sometimes you have to be pretty creative to locate families,” said Sgt. Tom Iverson, a spokesman for the headquarters office of the patrol. “The Internet, the phonebook, sometimes there might be an item in the vehicle with their address on it. Sometimes a recent call on their cell phone to a parent.”

“Whatever you tell that person is definitely going to change that person’s life forever, so there’s that stress in it,” Orluck said. “Because of the the sensitive nature of it, that’s probably the worst part of the job.”

But it’s better than the alternative, which is the family hearing about what happened on social networking sites or through the grapevine. That will leave a lot more confusion and questions and could make the news harder to bear.

“We’d prefer one-on-one contact with the family,” Orluck said. “I think accurate information is paramount in these cases. Someone who heard it from a friend or someone else trying to pass on the information … is actually worse for the family.”

Often a trooper will be accompanied by a clergy member, hopefully one familiar with the family or a trained chaplain with the agency. Sometimes, though, that option isn’t available. Regardless, Orluck said the troopers will be there to support the family in any way they can.

That support can range from answering their questions, guiding them on what to do next, or even simply giving a ride to the hospital.

“More often than not they know what’s going to happen when they see us coming up to the house,” Iverson said.

A changing state

North Dakota has always ranked among the least populated states in the country, with a population at just under 700,000, according to 2012 U.S. Census data estimates.

In more populous states, that number can be found by itself in just a medium-sized metropolitan area.

With a more relatively sparsely populated area comes the much higher probability that an emergency responder will come into contact with someone they’re close to, or at least know in some way.

Orluck, who will have served 28 years with the patrol by January, seemed thankful that he hasn’t had an experience of having to investigate and report on the death of a close friend or relative. Still, he has had to notify “many times over the years,” and toward the beginning of his career he came close.

He was stationed in Bismarck, his second posting, when he was the trooper at the scene of a single-vehicle rollover that resulted in the death of an 18-year-old. He didn’t know the person, but he had met the family a few times and had to present them with the news.

“That’s why I feel bad for ambulance and emergency services,” he said. “A lot of the time they do know somebody and they deal with that a lot.”

“It is very hard to do,” Iverson said about informing the family. “One of the things I often tell myself while I’m doing it is that I’m not going to feel sorry for myself for having to do this because I’m not the one on the other side of the table. … That was a way I always had to do it. It’s stressful and mentally exhausting to do, but it would be much worse to be the person receiving the news.”

But with the changing economics of the state drawing more people to move here, it also makes reporting a death more difficult. Usually family will be in the area, but many newcomers won’t have ties to the state and family will have to be located elsewhere.

The state police or highway patrol in that state will then have to report the death, lending more time to the family learning the details in other, less sure ways.

And then, there’s also the fact that newcomers aren’t prepared for harsh, hazardous North Dakota Winters. And locals sometimes forget.

Other than being careful on icy roads or adverse winter weather, Orluck also wants to remind people not to be in too much of a hurry, and to plan out trips ahead of time so as not to speed to try to make up time on the road themselves.