5 Terrible Things I Learned Working as a 911 Dispatcher
I went into the job of 911 operator and police dispatcher with certain expectations: I'd hear crazy shit, I'd help people, and everyone involved would be super serious. As in "A Very Special Episode" serious. I mean, there I was, a part of the "thin blue line" that separates you from the barbarism at the edge of civilization -- it can't get more somber than that. So it was my job to help while remaining detached, dispassionate, and cool. Imagine my surprise when I found out ...
Most Calls to the Emergency Line Aren't Emergencies
If you were raised right, you view 911 as something very close to sacred that's only to be used in direst need. I have some unfortunate news: A lot of people were not raised properly by their parents and/or television. They dial 911 at the drop of a hat. The vast majority of calls to 911 are in no way an emergency. In a given day, 75 percent of the calls don't involve anything life- or property-threatening.
This girl called in once and wanted to report that her boyfriend had stolen something from her and threatened her. She put the phone down but forgot to end the call -- maybe she expected me to? But we're not allowed to break contact until you do (imagine getting hung up on by your 911 operator). Apparently she was having an argument with her boyfriend and wanted to prove she'd lie to the police to get him in trouble. I distinctly heard her say, "See, you'd better shape up!" She wound up getting busted for filing a false report, but punishments like that are few and far between.
"Hello, the sudoku answers the woman next to me keeps putting down are a crime against math."
Chattanooga, Tennessee, has one of the largest freshwater aquariums in the world. People would get kicked out of the aquarium for cussing and "making eyes" at the seals. (Sexy eyes? Angry eyes? Which option is less disturbing?) These same "too hot for the aquarium" folks would call 911 and complain that their First Amendment rights were being violated. But private companies can absolutely kick you off of their property, and 911 wouldn't be the right place to call in that "emergency" anyway. Is there any situation in which your ability to lustily eye-fuck some seals constitutes an emergency?
Well, not now, but maybe in four hours.
During the recent snowpocalypse, one woman called because her disabled son couldn't get out to work and we needed to come clean their driveway. Roughly half of the American South was under ice at that point, so we didn't consider his case a priority, and besides -- it's tough to attach a plow to the front of an ambulance. It's mostly zip ties and duct tape, then you have to throw all the dying patients out to make room for the gravel ... it's just a hassle.
When You Call Matters a Lot
When we're short-staffed, there's nothing to do but stay at your station, even if you need to pee. Try not to think of your 911 operator urinating into a Mountain Dew bottle while you recount your tragic water slide accident. When the storm of the century hits? I still have to get to work. Even if my car's stuck in the driveway, they'll find someone with a 4x4 and push it out. 911 does not get snow days.
Curiously, Columbus Day is still observed.
The second shift is from around 2 p.m. to 10 p.m., so it's obviously the busiest shift, and all the folks with seniority got their asses transferred away as soon as possible. This means the most experienced dispatchers aren't around during the busiest hours. And hey, that's like most other workplaces. The folks with seniority are going to use their seniority to make work suck less. Unfortunately, our "work" happens to be "dealing with terrible calamities," and if those calamities happen at the wrong time, there could be nothing but a room full of newbies to help. It's not exactly comforting to be on the phone screaming "There's fire everywhere -- oh God, the bees! Not the bees! Arghhblgg!" and be met with "Bear with me, sir, it's my first day."
You Will Get Personally Invested in Your Calls
We got a call from a woman who thought she was about to be robbed at gunpoint. There was a prowler outside her house, and it was my job to direct the cops there and keep her calm. But I was just a hair away from freaking out myself, because I knew that at any second there could be the sound of breaking glass, followed by the woman screaming. It's like watching a horror movie while knowing that it's all happening for real across town. See if you don't yell at the screen a bit then.
"NO! Don't say 'I'll be right back.' Didn't you ever watch Scream?"
This was one of the most emotional cases of my career. I had an officer en route, and after a few minutes he told us he was on scene, so I told the caller to open her front door and go outside to meet him. She walked out and told me there was no one outside. I asked the officer where he was and it turned out he'd lied, for whatever reason, and was still a few minutes out. Officer Round-to-the-Nearest-Hour was dicking about God knows where, and this lady had just opened her door and walked out into prowler territory. She (understandably) freaked out, and all I could do was tell her to get back inside and lock the door. My inclination was to say, "The police officer just put you in danger and you should sue the police department," but instead I said he was "around back" and kept that charade up until Officer Mosey casually wandered onto the scene.
"What, uh ... *burp* ... what seems to be the trouble?"
Once she hung up, I told my supervisor what had happened and then went outside to scream for several minutes. That's because ...
It's Even More Traumatizing Than You Think
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."
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?"
"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.
It Teaches You to Compartmentalize Some Terrible Things
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.
"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.
"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.
"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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