Q: How did you become a 911 dispatcher?
A: It was an accident. I was a teenage mother and I’d tried several different jobs. When my son was about 8, I decided I needed to find a “career.” Everyone told me that the best jobs were government jobs, so I started applying for every city and county job I was qualified for. About nine months later, I got the call, and after doing it for a while I realized it was right up my alley.
It’s a constant challenge for my brain. I’m a bit of an adrenaline junkie.
Q: What is your job exactly? Do you work random shifts?
A: I’m a training manager, so I work straight day shift. Most dispatchers do rotating shifts like police, fire, and EMS. Day, swing, overnight …
Q: What kind of area does your office cover?
A: The entire county. We do all business for 9 police departments, 19 fire departments, and 3 EMS.
Q: How many people do you have on the phones?
A: Anywhere from six to nine people. Anyone can potentially answer the phone. If there is an accident on I-5, we’ll have everyone answering the phone, whether they’re a call-taker or working a busy police or fire radio.
Q: How many legitimate calls do you get each day?
A: Actual calls for service—maybe three, four hundred a day.
Q: Are they legitimate?
A: Legitimate? Legitimate is a state of mind. Those 300 are the ones we enter a call for in our system.
If I had to guess the percentage of calls that are a true emergency, I’d say about 7 percent. We see domestic violence and assaults every day, and then maybe some bigger stuff once or twice a week.
Q: Do you get crank calls?
A: All the time. Like small kids playing with the phone, or kids who’ve had a 911 dispatcher come and do a talk at their school, so they test it out.
Q: When someone calls, is it like on TV? Is it like a giant room with a big screen and everyone wearing headphones?
A: There are six 19-inch screens at each workstation, plus four big-screen monitors in the room for the building cameras.
We don’t wear uniforms, though, and our place is a little messy.
Q: Can you trace where people live based on their phone number?
A: Assuming it’s a land line—a regular home phone—the screen shows your address and the phone number the call is coming from.
Q: And how about cell phones?
A: For all cell phones that are phase-2 wireless, we should be able to get a hit within 50-foot accuracy. But if the call comes from an apartment complex, we might send an officer, and they’ll have to knock on every door. So we tell people to use your home phone when you’re at home.
Q: Can you call 911 from a cell phone? For some reason, I feel like I read on the side of a bus that there’s some special protocol …
A: You can dial 911 from any cell phone, even if it’s not activated. Most cell phones have an auto function, like if you press and hold 9 it calls us. We call it “butt dialing.” We track it, but it’s a huge resource drain.
We always call people back to ensure they’re OK and sometimes they’ll say, “I did not call 911.” My standard response is “I didn’t pick your number out of nowhere.”
Q: Do you remember the first call you ever took?
A: Yes. My first call was a guy who was pissed off because there was a vehicle parked at the port for three days and he wanted it moved.
One of the most shocking things is how mundane so many of the calls are.
One time, I had the most hysterical girl on the phone; it turned out to be a teenager who had locked her keys in the car.
I started around Halloween, and a woman called and said there were “gangs of kids walking down the street.”
Q: You sound like you’re able to handle the ups and downs of this job pretty well.
A: I think the key to doing this job, in addition to multitasking and speed of movement, is to be able to handle the emotional components. I’m good at it; I’m empathetic and I don’t take it home at the end of the day. I can talk about things like domestic violence; it’s just a reality.
Q: How long have you been doing this job?
A: I’ve been doing it for nine years. My job now is training supervisor, so I manage ongoing training. New trainees go through a nine-month process; we have an academy. They learn call-taking, radio dispatching, the medical aspect, interpersonal skills.
And you have to know geography. Geography is so important, because people can call and have no clue where they are.
Q: Do you talk people through CPR when someone’s having a heart attack?
A: That happens probably once or twice a week. We have specific medical protocols for all different types of situations.
Q: So, if I were choking and home alone and I called you and was just banging on the table or something, you would send someone?
A: Yes. But make sure you call from your land line so we can find you, and leave the line open.
Q: What other kinds of strange calls do you get?
A: We have people having babies … I can think of three of those off the top of my head … Most of the time, they’ve either waited too long to go to the hospital or they’re in transit. We’ll meet them on the way to the hospital.
One time, a girl called and said her friend was having extreme pain. We asked, “Is it possible that she is pregnant?” and the girl said no. You could hear her friend howling in the background. We said, “We have an ambulance on the way. If anything changes with the situation, please call us back.”
She called back a few minutes later and said that her friend had a baby. So we walked them through what to do.
Q: Do you tell them to cut the umbilical cord?
A: No. I haven’t done it myself, but I think we tell them to put the baby on the mother’s stomach, keep it warm, and make sure nothing is blocking its air passageway.
Q: Any other calls you can share?
A: Some of the funniest calls involve kids.
A boy who was 10 once called in and said, “My mom is sexing and you need to send someone over here to make it stop.”
We learned later that the father had died and the mom had a new boyfriend and the boy didn’t like it …
Q: If I see a dog in a hot car in the summertime, should I call 911?
A: We’ll always tell you to call. If you have a question, better safe than sorry. We always say, “Most people only call 911 once in their lifetime.”
Q: Hopefully, this counts as mine.