5 Terrible Things I Learned Working as a 911 Dispatcher

#2. It's Even More Traumatizing Than You Think

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The majority of people I talk to in my office are on some sort of antidepressant. I started taking Paxil in April 2011. That month, one of our sergeants was murdered in the line of duty, and a tornado rolled through Alabama and killed a lot of people in Tuscaloosa. Now, think back to any really singular disaster that's happened in your lifetime. You probably got a little obsessed for a day or two, until all those pictures of hurricane-struck villages got too sad to bear, and you clicked away to go stream an episode of MacGyver.

Then you got to stop thinking about human suffering for a bit, and instead thought: "Oh, MacGyver, you had to give up your hockey tickets to defuse that bomb -- you truly are Canada's greatest hero."

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And champion to mullet enthusiasts the world over.

A dispatcher does not have that option. MacGyver does not stream to emergency services. Every damn day is eight (or more) straight hours of obsessing over horrific disasters of all kinds.

Most people call 911 once or twice in their life, if ever, and it's usually the worst day of their life. No one calls 911 and says, "What's up? Just lost a leg to a bear, but otherwise I'm having a great time." And there's always the possibility that, one day, the person having that shitty day will be someone you know. My father-in-law came on the line once and I said: "911, what's your emergency?"

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"Will you tell her that you don't get $500 for landing on Free Parking?!"

You never expect to take a call like that. I had to talk my father-in-law through what we both feared might have been my mother-in-law's heart attack. She turned out to be fine, but I was shaking for a while afterward. That may even be a tame example. There's a call they play for us in training: A police officer named Julie Jacks was attacked by an escaped mental patient a few years back, and her mic got keyed on. She ended up getting shot and dying in the attack, and the folks on the line (including her husband) had to sit there and listen to everything.

So yes, PTSD is a hazard of the job.

#1. It Teaches You to Compartmentalize Some Terrible Things

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There are different levels of emergency. That means we'll be talking one person through performing CPR on a baby while someone else just drunkenly tapped out the numbers for emergency service because Scruffy the goddamn dog triggered their house alarm. You have to be good at keeping both situations in your head without screaming profanities at poor Scruffy, who's really just an innocent bystander in this fuckstorm.

I once took a call from a man who thought he was having a heart attack. We need to sound calm on the phone so we don't make the situation even worse; that's why every operator has an impassive Professional Voice. It isn't exactly the world's most compassionate tone. I sent the medical unit in and then he ended the call. A little while later, the paramedics arrived and found the guy dead. For the rest of the day, I couldn't help but think about how it would feel to die in line at a Walmart, with the last human voice I hear being some dispassionate cashier asking for a price check on Extra King-Size Mike and Ikes.

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"He's not technically in line anymore, right?"

I got pretty drunk and cried about it later that night, but for the rest of my shift I had to push it out of my mind to deal with Todderick, the grown man who couldn't figure out the child-safe cap on his Motrin.

Once there was an accident with a fatality on one of our highways, and it took them a lot of time to clean up all the ... bits. We got a call later because we had to do a death investigation. While all of this was going on and details of this horrific wreck were filtering in through the office, someone stuck in the traffic backed up by that accident called in.

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"I've had these movie tickets for hours, I am not missing the previews!"

"I've been crawling for an hour! What's the holdup?"

This job exposes you to many tragedies, but perhaps the greatest of them all is the utter impossibility of delivering a cockpunch through the phone.

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"OK, sir, what I'm going to need you to do is find the nearest rake and step on it as hard as you can."


Jeff Hewitt is an independent writer who resides in Georgia with his wife and dogs. If you like fantasy novels, especially fantasy novels that involve gods, swordplay, and magic, check out his website (www.jeffhewitt.net), where you can find information about him, his writing, and where to spend your sweaty, hard-earned cash on books about make-believe. Robert Evans manages the Cracked Comedy Workshop and runs Cracked's Personal Experience article team. You can reach him here. He'd also appreciate if you'd donate to help his friends protect their farm from bandits.

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