Last week at work was Telecommunicator Week. (A telecommunicator is a 911 dispatcher.) There were crossword search puzzles, mazes, hidden phrase activities, and free food all week (with the exception of the potluck at the end of the week where everyone brings a dish to share). There’s a wheel to spin for extra tickets which get turned in for prizes. But the biggest kick we get is Dispatch Bingo!
Dispatch Bingo has a number of various nature codes (types of calls) that might come in. If you are the call taker that took the call or the dispatcher that aired it over the radio, you stamp it and mark it with the call number. First day shift and first night shift to bingo gets a prize.
Some get the worst bingo cards where they really don’t want to bingo because the squares they get are fatality-related calls. Then there are some that get the easy bingo cards with rows containing civil service calls, traffic control issues, motor vehicle accidents, missing juveniles, and animal cruelty calls.
New Event This Year
This year, the media team decided to conduct interviews of the dispatchers. We had no idea of the questions they were going to ask in advance so there was no time to prepare. My interview was the worst, and I am ever so glad they didn’t show any of it. But I have rehearsed the questions in my mind since and the responses I should have given countless times since. I’d like to share those questions and responses with you here.
Q: What call has impacted you the most as a 911 dispatcher?
A: This was the one question I got ahead of time from another coworker who had gone before. It was the only question she gave us. So I did have this one prepared. But I would like to share 2 stories with you now.
The story I gave
It was within the first 2 months of my employment as a 911 dispathcer when a call came in. A girl in her late teens was on the line and advised her boyfriend had picked her up and thrown her on the ground. She was upset, shaken, but fairly calm at that moment.
I asked her where he was at now and she told me he was sitting there in front of her in a chair. I was a little surprised at how things were so calm at that moment. He had gone from physically assaulting her to sitting calmly and allowing her to call 911.
Police are on the way, but before I can go anywhere further, she starts shrieking. When I’ve finally got her calmed down enough to understand her, she says he has a knife and he wants to kill himself. I had hardly got that information in the call slip before she starts shrieking again. This time he’s running out in the street trying to get a car to hit him. It is at this point that she tells me that she’s pregnant.
It’s my story!
I couldn’t help but immediately see the parallels in our story. Sure, Julio was never physically abusive. He would never have raised his hand to me. I never once felt, in the height of his anger and drunken rages, that I was ever in any physical danger. But at that time I was 4-5 months pregnant with a boyfriend who’d been successful at committing suicide.
I told her to remain on the porch, to not try and interfere with his attempts. She would only put herself and her baby in danger if she tried, because he was completely unpredictable in this state. The end of the story that I got was that he ran into the woods where the units found him and safely placed him into the custody of mental health professionals. What has happened to him, the girl, and the baby since, is unknown. But that day they all went to bed alive.
Things a 911 dispatcher knows all too well: not all stories have happy endings.
The second call that I will always remember involved a completely uncontrollable female caller. It is a miracle I managed to get an address out of her screams. I could hear a male voice in the background and a lot of commotion. I could not tell if the female was being attacked or what. Nothing I said could calm her enough to understand her words. EMS was on the line and they couldn’t get her to calm down either.
If I had known then what I know now, I would have asked for another person to speak to. But I didn’t know then what I know now. I couldn’t ask for another person to speak to because I didn’t know if the other person was assaulting her!
Within a minute of being on the phone with her, I put in the nature code of a disturbance in progress, priority one. There was clearly something going on between her screams and the commotion in the background. The female disconnected on us, and I attempted to call her back. She answered still as uncontrollable as before, making no sense. She disconnected again. On the third call, she didn’t answer.
Fastest response ever!
Within 3 minutes of the call dropping, a Constable made scene to find no one there, the door open, and a blood trail. I remember it was within 3 minutes very clearly. It was such a fast response. The unit had been in the area, and I had been in touch with the female in the midst of his response, that I was absolutely floored over the fact that no one was there.
Twenty minutes later, we received a call from a local hospital. They had a 2 year old come into the emergency room with a home address of the incident my hysterical female had given. The 2 year old didn’t make it. The mother’s excuse for hanging up on 911? The call taker kept asking “what.” What happened? Both parents thought the 2 year old was with the other parent and a friend ran him over backing out of the driveway.
Contemplating what went wrong
Had I been the only call taker on the line, I might have second guessed my abilities to take these calls. But there were two other call takers on the call: my trainer and EMS. Neither one could understand her either. So please, please, I beg of you, if you find yourself in the unfortunate situation where your child’s life is at stake, take a breath and make sure the responders can understand you.
I get it. I am a mom. I take these calls with babies whose lives are fading or in jeopardy because of unknown (or even known) circumstances and it grips my heart to imagine if it were my child. I never thought I would be a co-sleeper with my baby, but every time I thought I would break the habit, I would get one of those calls and I couldn’t give up my snuggles. All I wanted to do was snuggle her and cherish the moments.
But your child’s life is at stake and is dependent on your ability to relay the necessary information to the first responders. You have to keep yourself under control until after they are in the hands of medical professionals. Then you can lose your cool and dissolve into hysterics.
Q: How do you deal with the trauma of the last call when the next one comes in right behind it?
(I am rephrasing this question to a certain extent because I can’t remember word for word.) My response went somewhere along the lines of faith and trusting God. I was stumbling my way through my response because I was in front of a camera and had no time to prepare. I am sure it made no sense.
The real answer is that you just do. You keep moving from one call to the next. Each call is different and requires your presence in the here and now for that call and not the last call you were on. No, this job isn’t for everyone. But there are many people out there like myself who just keep moving when the calls come in. We keep an eye out on the calls in hopes that the deputy or officer might add notes in the end to give some idea of what happened, but we all know through experience that the chances of closure are slim.
But we keep going.
There are other stories
If you were to ask my colleagues, you would hear a slew of heart wrenching, bone chilling stories. Some have happy endings and others don’t. But most of these endings we never know about. In fact, except for those that result in death, we never really know how anything turns out.
My colleagues and I have talked to killers, victims, lost children, and angry citizens. We’ve been on the receiving end of back to back, high intense calls with only 5 seconds to breathe (that’s the amount of time the system still registers you as busy after the call has been disconnected). 5 seconds is not nearly long enough to process the last call and gather your thoughts.
But you move on. You keep answering those calls, asking those questions, and getting the necessary response out there. And you decompress later with recreational activities and relaxation techniques.
It takes a certain kind of person to be able to handle the job as a 911 dispatcher. It definitely isn’t for the faint of heart. I can’t tell you how easy it is to become jaded over the human race as you get these calls in, and you learn just how desperately petty, self-centered, and sometimes downright evil people can be. But it is extremely rewarding knowing that your voice is calm in someone’s storm, talking them down from the ledge or breathing a breath of hope into someone’s nightmare.
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