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Paige Ross

Faribault junior Paige Ross has been a varsity contributor for the Falcons since she was an eighth-grader. (File Photo)


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911 Center proposing mobility project in face of pandemic

It’s the middle of the night, you’re home alone and you hear a loud crash down the hall followed by footsteps and whispers. You lock yourself in your bedroom and reach for your phone.

On the other end of the line you hear, “911, what’s the location of your emergency?”

The dispatchers at the Rice Steele 911 Center are there — during a break in, a car accident, a mental health crisis and any time where you need help, stat. The job they do is vital to the communities they serve, and their operation is among one of the top priorities for community leaders.

In the face of the pandemic, however, 911 Center Administrator Jill Bondhus recognized a need almost immediately as employees in every industry and service began working remotely. In April, Bondhus approached the 911 Center Joint Powers Board with a $660,000 idea.

“This would allow us to have mobility,” Bondhus said as she explained why the the dispatch center need to be mobile. While grant options were explored for the project, none were available. That’s when Bondhus took the prioritized list of what is needed to be able to mobilize and relocate 911 Center services before the board with a request for federal CARES Act funding.

The project was discussed for several months at Joint Powers Board meetings, with plenty of questions about how the project would qualify under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Bondhus presented the board with the list of equipment and software needed to make the mobility possible, adding the ability to split staff into two groups to reduce COVID-19 exposure as a priority. Galen Malecha, Rice County commissioner and chair of the 911 Center Joint Powers Board, said he is confident that the project not only meets the guidelines for CARES Act dollars, but it needs to be considered a priority for the communities involved.

“It is our responsibility to make sure we have a functioning dispatch center to serve the needs of the citizens in an emergency situation,” Malecha said. “This is a way for us to come up with the funding to do such a project, and it’s not small amount, however how can you put a price on a human life in an emergency situation?”

Malecha said the pandemic exposed the limited capabilities within the 911 Center — located in the Law Enforcement Center in Owatonna that also houses the Steele County Sheriff’s Office and Owatonna Police Department — to be able to move to another room or another facility altogether in the face of a natural disaster or emergency. Steele County Commissioner James Brady, who also sits on the 911 Joint Powers Board, added another potential situation that could cripple the current 911 operations.

“This also ties in to the disturbance they had down at the Law Enforcement Center with the protests earlier this year,” Brady said regarding a 10-hour protest in Owatonna the weekend after the death of George Floyd while in custody of Minneapolis police. “We have to have a way to work remotely in case there is a future fight or something happened due to civil unrest. [Dispatchers] need to be able to keep doing their job even if they are forced to move.”

According to Brady, the Law Enforcement Center received reports that protests could get out of hand in Owatonna, though nothing of the sort ever came to fruition. Regardless, Brady said the two counties cannot afford not to have a contingency plan should the building become unavailable for 911 services.

With the Faribault Police Department earmarked as a backup location for the 911 Center, Malecha said the time to invest in mobile dispatch units is now.

“The equipment has to be mobile, and we’ve discovered we don’t have all that mobile equipment to set up a second operation in case we are unable to use that Owatonna location,” Malecha said. “It has been proven that the need is there, now it is just a matter of how we make this work and how we can make it work financially for both counties.”

When the 911 Center was first established, Malecha said the Joint Powers Board put a formula in place that dictates costs to operate the center for each county based on population. Today, bills are shared 60/40 with the larger portion falling on Rice County. Malecha said the same formula will be used to determine how much CARES Act funding will come from each county.

The total project cost, as presented to the Rice County Board of Commissioners Aug. 11, totals $602,223, plus a contingency fund of $60,223. The largest cost of the project will go toward establishing four new mobile radio stations and six additional phone stations, totaling upward of $347,935. Other expenses include software, electrical work, fiber upgrades at the Faribault Police Department and labor.

As a shared venture between the counties, Steele County Commissioner Jim Abbe said maintaining the tools for the 911 dispatchers to perform their services is a high priority for both local governments.

“It is an integral part of our counties and in many cases is about life safety,” said Abbe, who is also a member of the 911 Center Joint Powers Board. “There isn’t a weakness there, our dispatchers do a fantastic job and our administrator works hard — we’re in a good spot. But [the pandemic] has opened a lot of eyes not just for 911 centers, but for a lot of areas of everyday life. This will help us be better prepared if something like this ever were to happen again.”

Brady echoed Abbe’s remarks, adding that 911 is engrained in the way society functions today.

“People have become accustomed to dialing 911 in an emergency, I don’t know how you could get by if those services were to fail,” he said. “It’s a costly project, but it’s a valuable part of our society.”

The Joint Powers Board and the Rice County Board of Commissioners have approved this project. The final remaining step will be for the project to be presented and approved by the Steele County Board of Commissioners in an upcoming meeting. That date is yet to be determined.


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District's mental health strategy includes 'Chill Zone' calming rooms

Imagine a quiet room with warm colors, comfortable furniture, stress balls, relaxing music and dim lighting.

It might come as a surprise to some that this type of space is about to become more common in local school. This year, Faribault High School and Faribault Area Learning Center will implement their own recharging spaces, called Chill Zones.

Part of the Change to Chill school partnership offered through Allina Health, Chill Zones serve students who are experiencing stress or any type of mental health concern during the school day and who need to refocus.

“We’ve seen an incredible impact, just to give the youth a place to go and step away from whatever it may be for 15 to 20 minutes,” said Susan Nygaard, Allina Health manager of community health improvement. “We are also creating a virtual Chill Zone that should be launched in the next week. That will include a list of resources on how to create a space within the home.”

How the Chill Zone works depends on the school. Some include sound machines, some forbid or limit cell phone usage and some house an aquarium. Nygaard said students may rate how they feel before entering the Chill Zone, and if their number doesn’t improve after they leave, they might be encouraged to speak with a school counselor.

“There are no two Chill Zones that are the same,” Nygaard said. “Each school has been really unique to fit their school population.”

Schools selected for the Change to Chill program receive $1,000 to implement Chill Zones, and interns from the schools design and help create the space.

At FHS, senior Bennett Wolff applied for the internship opportunity at the recommendation of Mallory Fuchs, FHS’s chemical health specialist. After being accepted, Wolff spent the past couple months completing online training, researching mental health, and learning what students need and how to make resources accessible. One of the most startling statistics she read says half of all mental health conditions start by age 14, but most go undetected and untreated.

Wolff developed an interest in mental health after undergoing two knee surgeries. Although her surgeries resulted from physical injuries, she worked with a mental health professional in her recovery process and realized there are countless ways mental health plays a role in everyday life. Her experiences have inspired her to pursue degrees in sports psychology and marketing after high school.

“This gal just stood out as really sharp, and she’s going to make some real changes in the school district,” Nygaard said of Wolff, who presented her ideas for the FHS Chill Zone to the Allina Health team.

Wolff also invited senior McKenzie Gehrke to help decorate the Chill Zone. Although they haven’t bought materials yet, Wolff envisions the room to resemble one that belongs to a therapist, with waterfalls, essential oils and inspirational posters. She plans to deliver her presentation to local businesses and fundraise so she can buy more materials.

“Honestly, it’s kind of hard right now with COVID, but my goal is to just have the room up and running to plant some seeds for next year,” Wolff said.

It’s Wolff’s hope that students take full advantage of the room and the resources available. Beyond that, she hopes the Change to Chill training teachers work for the benefit of students who may need an adult to understand their needs.

FHS Assistant Principal Shawn Peck, advisor to the Chill Zone project, said having a seven-period day at FHS this year opened up the opportunity for staff to engage in the Change to Chill program through training.

“We’re super appreciative of Allina for bringing our attention to the program and the people who are working with the schools from that organization,” Peck said.

Since the Chill Zone isn’t meant to be a fix-all for students’ mental health problems, it’s important that staff members know how to offer other services and forms of support. Schoolwide, Peck said staff will take a new approach to mental health this year with breathing exercises, screen breaks and other techniques.

During the pandemic, social distancing will be enforced in the Chill Zone, which will have a central location near the counselor’s office. Otherwise, Peck imagines two to three students in the room at a time. A trained staff member will provide supervision.

“We’re still working out the logistics,” Peck said of the Chill Zone. “There needs to be accountability; it can’t just be a hangout spot. Students will need permission from their teacher or a counselor … If a student tells their teacher they’re having a tough time, we’ve all been able to receive training from Allina to assess when to have them utilize that space.”

Double impact

Natalie Ginter, community engagement lead for the Allina south region, explained that Change to Chill started out as a web-based program containing different modules for students to work through in a group or on their own. To expand on the program, Allina began offering Change to Chill training to upward of 30 people in the Faribault, Northfield and Owatonna area. In partnership with schools, Allina has provided technical assistance and additional funding to make more resources available to students.

“We’ve funded schools in other communities in the region and none in Faribault in the past, so that was good to see the work expand to the Faribault area,” Ginter said.

The Faribault district’s Mental Health Advisory Board has a strategic plan, and Ginter said it works well with the community health needs assessment Allina develops every three years. This year through 2022, mental health is one of the top three priorities Allina identified as a major need across the state and nation.

“I think it’s exciting we have some local schools that are working together on this and the student engagement is really important,” Ginter said. “It’s a part of a bigger plan to address mental health needs and better support students in managing stress, especially during this time, in COVID … If this is one thing we can help do that, then we’re really happy to be a partner in it.”


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Project to improve internet speeds gets county backing

Rice County’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority has thrown its support — and a bit of investment — behind a proposal from internet service provider Bevcomm that could upgrade service in the Morristown area.

The HRA, which includes all five members of the Rice County Board of Commissioners, approved a request from Blue Earth-based Bevcomm for a $15,000 interest-free loan to help finance its latest project. Rice County HRA Executive Director Joy Watson said that the funding for the loan came from dollars the HRA set aside back between 2010 to 2014. She noted that while it may be interest free, it won’t be forgivable — Bevcomm will need to repay it in full within three years or less.

A fourth-generation family-owned and operated communications service provider, Bevcomm has 115 employees and 10 local offices, serving 27 rural communities and surrounding farmland in rural Minnesota. Bevcomm recently purchased Lonsdale Telephone Co., which served Lonsdale and Morristown, and has worked hard to upgrade service since. In January, Bevcomm was awarded $2.5 million in grant funding from the state.

More than two-thirds of that grant funding is set to be invested in expanding broadband to the area formerly served by Eckels Telephone company, which includes portions of western Rice County along with portions of Le Sueur and Scott counties.

Once it’s complete, the project will bring service to 417 households, 88 farms, 59 businesses, and 4 “community anchor institutions” to standards exceeding the state’s 2022 and 2026 speed goals. Now, Bevcomm is turning its attention to the southern part of the county.

The proposed project would provide improved service to 109 households located south of Morristown and Warsaw, according to Bevcomm President Bill Eckels. In total it will cost just under $1 million, a cost of nearly $10,000 per household.

Given the extremely high cost per household, Eckels said it’s simply not viable for the company to make this investment without assistance. He’s planning on applying on grant funds for the state, with a deadline coming up at the end of September.

Expanding access to broadband has been a priority of local legislators and a rare issue of bipartisan consensus at the Capitol, even before the pandemic hit. Now, high quality internet access is needed more than ever, as workers shift to telecommuting, students to online learning and patients to telemedicine.

At Gov. Tim Walz’s urging, legislators have showered the Border-to-Border broadband grant with millions for this year and next. However, the Governor’s initial request for an additional $30 million this year was sidetracked as legislators focused on more immediate needs.

Current state law has set a goal of ensuring that every Minnesotan has reliable access to the internet, with download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second and an upload speed of at least 3 Mbps by 2022. In 2026, those targets will rise to 100 Mbps per second and 20 Mbps per second, respectively. Eckels said that once it’s complete, the proposed project would provide service in excess of both goals.

That was music to the ears of Commissioner Jeff Docken, who represents the area on the county board. Docken, a Forest Township farmer, said that access to high-speed internet has been a long time coming for residents of his largely rural district.

“I don’t think we realize how important this is for the ag community,” he said.

Given the highly competitive process, Rice County has often struggled to get the state loans it needs to move projects forward. County Administrator Sara Folsted has said that’s because while Rice County definitely has its issues, it’s not “as underserved” as some other areas.

While the county’s interest-free loan may cover just a small fraction of the project, it will add significant “points” to Bevcomm’s application in the eyes of the state, potentially boosting it past competing projects.

Watson said that if the loan succeeds in luring those dollars, it will have been well worth the investment. She argued the project could help to ensure that no Rice County resident finds themselves locked out of 21st century economic and educational opportunities.

“It’s really important for the citizens of Rice County,” she said. “We want to make sure that people who live in rural Rice County have the same access to opportunities as everyone else.”