The “graph” you see above isn’t a graph at all. This is a screen shot of the 911 center’s audio recorder. More importantly, it’s a snapshot of what roughly six minutes in a 911 center looks like. If you look at the very top you see that this time line starts just a little before 4:07 PM and ends just shortly after 4:13 PM. Six minutes. Each of the grey “lines” – both the long and short ones – represent audio coming in or going out of the 911 center. The “lines” are either phone calls (the long ones) or radio audio (the short ones).
Just to be clear, there are roughly 62 “lines” in the snapshot.
Yes, I picked a particularly busy day and busy time frame. No, it’s not like this 24/7 every day. But as I was listening to audio the other day and looking for a specific phone call I realized that very few people outside the 911 center, including the responders we dispatch for, understand that at the same time someone is calling because they locked their keys in their car there are two car accidents, a road rage incident, a lady having a possible heart attack, a theft from a vehicle and mom calling because she can’t find her five-year old.
During the six-minute time frame above there were eight dispatchers on duty. Six are assigned to monitor audio coming in via radio from police, firefighters and EMT’s. Two are assigned to answer phones. But as you can see most of the dispatchers are listening and talking on the radio and also answering phone calls.
There are people writing a lot of articles about the stress of dispatching and how many dispatchers are being diagnosed with PTSD, and calling dispatchers the “unsung heroes” of the emergency world. But I think a lot of people in the emergency services – including the dispatchers themselves – blow the articles off. When you are a dispatcher you just take all of it in as part of the job. Yes it’s complicated to have three or four car accidents at one time but, it happens and it’s not like you’re working in an office where you handle one call, put one call on hold, transfer one and call the other one back later. So you just deal. And after all the excitement dies down you say – wow it got kinda busy there for a minute.
I never looked at what I did as special, or hard, or PTSD causing. It was just simply what I did. And then I left. And I found out a few things. First, I do have a heart. It was buried under a lot of protective layers but it’s there. Second, eyes leak – who knew? Third, it’s hard to transition from a world of 0-60 in 10 seconds to a world where if you can get to 60 sometime in 8 hours you’re doing OK. And then…… I went back. Not in the same capacity as before, but I went back.
It was the going back that made me realize all of those articles about stress and empathy and emotions really are important and people should start paying attention. Because almost immediately after returning I noticed the transformation in myself. I went back to being the girl without a heart, the tough bad ass who wasn’t going to be effected by three or four overdoses a day, life-altering car accidents, and five or more domestic abuse calls a day from women getting hit, or worse the kids calling because mom is getting hit. And while five is a rough estimate…. it happens a lot more than people even pretend to know.
One night I apologized to my husband for going back to being “hard shell” as I call it. Oddly one of the other firefighters overheard me say that and chimed in to the conversation saying, “yeah it’s different in a 911 center.” This firefighter had worked as a dispatcher for awhile before becoming a firefighter. He went on to explain how when he first started as a dispatcher he was always worried. Worried someone was going to break in his house, or his car, or that someone was going to rob the store he was in, or someone was going call in a threat if he flipped off the driver next to him. He told my husband, “You have no idea.” He went on to say you think you deal with the public as a firefighter, the good the bad and the ugly. But you only get a little piece. In the 911 center you get the whole pie. YESSSS!!! THAT!! WHAT HE SAID!!
So I present to the world… the whole pie. Or six minutes worth of the whole pie. This happened to be a day that I worked as one of the dispatchers assigned to take calls. And I only worked about 6 hours – which for most dispatchers is only a half of a shift. I took calls for: four car accidents, two lockouts, two VIN number checks, one shoplifter, one barking dog complaint, one call requesting a welfare check on a co-worker, two traffic investigations (speeding & reckless drivers), several ‘pocket dials’, a drug overdose, a person having chest pain, a person having an asthma attack, a woman possibly having a miscarriage and a drug store robbery. And the last call I took that day… was a lady who wanted to report that there was a horse laying down in a field and she just knew it was dead. She was just driving by, she didn’t own the horse. She didn’t stop to check on the horse or knock on the owners door. But she KNOWS horses and they never lay down. Horse tip – yes they do.
So what’s the take-away? I have no idea. There will always be 911. And there will always be dispatchers there to take the calls. I guess maybe my point is if you know a dispatcher and you think they have an odd personality or they worry about things that seem silly to most people or you think they are crazy for not liking full moons or they seem angry a lot or you tell them you saw a horrific accident and when you’re describing the gory details they act like it’s just an everyday conversation – this is why.