Sunday, May 07, 2006

911 - What is your emergency?

As many of you know I make my living as a police/fire/EMS dispatcher. I say make my living but this is a part-time job. My main job in life is to be (or try - the bloody way things are going) to be a good mom/wife/housekeeper.

Anyway back to my part-time job. Before I took the job I had only ever had one interaction with a 911 operator. Back in the UK (where the emergency # is 999) I had to make the call as a 3 year old kid had drowned in the pond in his back yard (at the top of my street). I remember answering all the Questions the operator was asking while at the same time trying to carry out the directions they were giving me AND simultaneously managing crowd control. This whole incident was nerve-wracking and is still etched on my mind all these years later. But you know what NEVER went through my mind? Not once? What the 911/999 operator was feeling or thinking. There I was AT the scene, clearly being able to see what was going on, being given calm, precise directions by some person who only through my interpetation knew what to tell me next...... Never once did I question anything. I had complete and utter trust of the operator who had a strangers life in their hands. This person was a God to me right then and I never gave them a second thought once I had hung up.

So all these years later you may ask what prompted me to then take up the very career that I just described as what seems a thankless task. I don't think I have an answer. Well not one that seems deserving. I heard the position was available, thought it would be interesting but didn't think I stood a snowballs chance in hell of getting it with my accent. Time passed and the whole process from applying to starting took almost a full year what with polygraph tests, interviews etc., At one point I almost gave up. But then I got the call.

My job involves all different aspects of Communications Officer work (as that is my actual title), details of which I obviously can't divulge but include community involvement, taking everyday calls, directing my officers etc.

Then there is the 911 phone.

As that sentence stands on it's own, so does the 911 phone. It looks almost batphone-ish.

When someone calls, the light flashes.

Now, most days we don't get a barrage of 911 calls per shift. The office I sit in is fairly quiet, aside from my computers, the 'normal' phone lines ringing, and people coming in to complain about everyday life or making reports etc., So, when the 911 phone DOES actually ring, you are almost scared shitless. It is very loud (which it has to be so everyone is aware of it), the buttons light up and if you have a cup of coffee you are, by now, suffering 3rd degree burns on the top half of your legs (in which case, you are the EMS next patient.)

I have been trained by other Communications Officers, been on a couple of Advanced Fire and Rescue Dispatch Courses where you are taught by the best to do your best. But, as I'm sure you can imagine, every call is different and unique.

As soon as the call comes in, you have to direct all your attention to the situation. You take a deep breath, answer the phone:

"911 - What is your emergency?"

and carry on from there. Sometimes you can hear screaming and the person is in a panic, doesn't know what they are saying, where they are, what is going on. Sometimes you can have the worst situation in the world and the person is so calm you almost think it's a hoax call. You could have kids calling, scared, barely at an age where they can talk. Elderly people calling as their husband/wife of 50+ years has died. 911 hangups. While all these are calls we sometimes get, there are a hundred different other calls we could get.

While I have to also carry on with other regular calls, traffic stops, etc., (I am the only dispatcher on duty) I HAVE to direct most of my attention to the 911 caller. I have to be calm when needed, direct and firm when needed, supportive and understanding when needed, while gathering as much information as I can about the situation, while calling out whichever response is needed (fire/police etc.,) all at the drop of a hat. You can be laughing at something one of your officers has just told you, yet if that 911 rings, you have to immediately be in 911-mode. You pour your heart and soul into the call. You have to put yourself in the situation your caller is in, imagine yourself at the scene. If you could pour yourself down the phone line to be there, to hold their hand, you would.

Then once your rescue team is on scene, the caller hangs up. End of call.

You could ask the caller an hour later what the operator said, whether they were male/female, and they would have no clue. Kind of like me at the start of this post. Life has changed for them, gone forward to the next thing.

For you, the dispatcher, it's onto the next call. The next crazy situation. Another cup of coffee spilled.

It's a crazy crazy job, but I wouldn't change it for anything. I love it.

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