A look inside 911

3 min of a 911 center

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.




Goodbye (1)

On February 16th, 1998 I walked into the Greenwood Police Department with 4 years’ experience dispatching private ambulances and volunteer fire departments (at the time I thought that was impressive) to start my career as a 911 Dispatcher.  Oh yeah and I was just over 3 months pregnant and wearing one of Tony Napier’s old Greenwood Police shirts in place of a maternity top.

I was trained by the legendary Will Johnson. OK so he may have only been a legend in his own mind but it was either legendary or infamous and I picked legendary because it’s nicer.  He had been the same person who, a few years before starting at Greenwood when I worked part-time for the Johnson County Sheriff, saved my ass during my very first vehicle pursuit.  I can laugh about it now but I had no clue what the deputies were talking about when they said they were “throwing sticks” at Stones Crossing and 37 – and he just yelled at me to repeat everything they were saying.  My first pursuit started with a police officer injured by a suspect who shot him during a traffic stop, the suspect then stole the officer’s squad car and lead multiple agencies in a chase that spanned 4 counties and ended in a car crash and the suspect shooting himself in the head.  So for those of you reading this that I’ve trained over the past few years and I tell you to just relax during pursuits they are usually quick and painless….. Ok I lied to make you feel better.  And yes I may have panicked a bit during my first one (you can kinda see why right?). But the adrenaline rush after that is what kept me coming back.

I don’t remember exactly what my first 911 call was.  I remember still being in training though and getting a 911 call from a lady who said her apartment was on fire and she was out on the balcony. And I was so excited to put out Box 213 on an apartment fire with entrapment.  Only to want to die of embarrassment as the firefighters got there and started to rescue her off her balcony then had to chase her down as she went back into the apartment and out her front door to go down and meet them.  She had burnt something on the stove and was only out on the balcony because of the bad smell in her apartment.  ASK MORE QUESTIONS…. Check.

From that point on that particular apartment complex and fire runs became my nemesis.  Many years later when there was a real fire and I got a frantic 911 call from a lady hysterically yelling at me in Spanish and I’m trying to tell her to exit the apartment by saying “Vamanos” (Dora the Explorer was the only thing coming to mind at the time – don’t judge).  What she was yelling at me hysterically in Spanish was that she was in fact trapped… on her balcony… and couldn’t get out.  Irony sucks.

I spent most of my career at Greenwood with Cathy, Patty and Pam from 2pm to 10pm.  We did a lot to entertain ourselves during those hours.  Once we started a “snowball fight” with the Sheriff’s dispatchers during a snowstorm – when citizens were calling in asking about road conditions we’d transfer them to the Sheriff’s department.  Once the Sheriff’s dispatchers caught on…. Well let’s just say they ended up winning the fight.  That probably sounds awful to Joe Q Citizen who is reading this… but it was well over 10 years ago so statute of limitations has no doubt run out and it was snowing…. The road conditions are SNOW COVERED.

After Pam left… we got Mike.  Reflecting back it was probably a REALLY bad idea to put the two of us together.  There were multiple times I had to go pick up dinner orders placed under various cartoon characters names… and sometimes worse depending on what I may or may not have done to irritate him that day.  Nothing more exciting than going to the Chinese restaurant and having to say you’re Betty Rubble or Flintstone Simpson (sometimes he got creative)… really.  Then there’s trying to dispatch a heart attack with someone making faces and funny noises in the background or beeping into to your computer with an IM message – or 10.  He reminded me not to long ago about the time we had three dispatchers so he and I both left and walked over to Mrs. Curl and the Police Chief got in line behind us – that was frowned upon.  And yes… we really did get into near knock down drag out fights on multiple occasions to put out fire runs.  Once when there were two fire runs at the same time and we were arguing over who got Engine 93 he literally used the “your shoes untied” trick to get me to look away from the computer long enough for him to start the alerting for the engine.  And to think I’ve actually MISSED him the past 4 and half years.  I know it seems I got the short end of the stick in some of the scenarios above but in all those years of picking up dinner for Barbie Jetson I wonder if his credit card company ever asked him if his real middle name is Fallullah.

I used to throw things in dispatch when I’d get frustrated with callers but I had to quit doing that after one night my pen took a bad bounce and nearly took out Pam’s left eye.  There are warnings on BB guns but maybe ballpoint pen makers should consider them as well.  The funny thing about coming in at 2pm was – you could always tell if you were getting in to trouble at the start of the shift just by pulling into the parking lot and seeing how many day shift dispatchers were still there.  And yes somewhere there is an evaluation from “Boo Boo” that says “does not play well with others.”  I’d like to point out based on the previous examples that I do to play well with others.

When I left Greenwood I found a new group of people – 911 dispatchers are the same all over and soon enough I had earned a host of new nicknames (Greenwoot, Perry, Andre – thanks to a typo, Banana and oddly enough the Director calls me HEIDI).  Those are the nice ones… Mr. Joyner, Mr. Lantz and Mr. Tatman.  There is a long-standing joke that I plan on hijacking the senior citizens bus parked at the station on the weekends and turn it into a taco food truck called TACOCAT.  One Christmas Jen put my hair in a “Snookie” bump and the whole shift painted our nails with glitter nail polish – even Disbro.  And on another Christmas I received a Perry Township Fire Dept. t-shirt coinciding with my “Perry” nickname.  And I have won [fabulous] prizes for my costumes during Telecomunicator Week – my favorite though was making the “Thing” shirts with Debbie and having our supervisor Pam dress up as the Cat in the Hat.  And I dearly miss Tracy’s Saturday morning no-calorie Belgium Waffles and biscuits and gravy and cookies and… well anything Tracy makes.

The first complaint I received as a HCCC fire dispatcher came from my husband. That was fun. It will make a nice Christmas story to tell our grandkids someday – I’m almost sure it will.  My first shift working as a police dispatcher at HCCC without a training wheels (Greg’s nickname for his trainers) a bank got robbed in Avon, then the very next shift 3 days later a second bank got robbed – yes I was the police dispatcher then too.  Some people just have all the luck.  Just this past Christmas Day the gal working police dispatch asked if I could watch the radio while she left the room for a minute – sure it’s 7am on Christmas Day (insert zzzzz).  Wake up… there’s a car in pursuit… really?!?! That pursuit ended better than my first – as have all my pursuits since that first one.

Training new employees became one of my favorite things to do at HCCC.  Training Matt Payne garnered my trademark saying of “Off with Their Heads!” and lead me to the title “Queen of Plainfield.”  And I’ll never forget him turning on his mute switch during a call and asking me if I was paying someone to call in because the request on the other end of the line was so outer limits ridiculous he thought it had to be fake.  It was not.  Thanks to Amanda B. she and all my fire trainees were rewarded with Swedish Fish when they did well.  It takes skill to make a CAD command sound like a seal bark – and like the seals at SeaWorld I figured she should get a fish as a reward.  My absolute favorite though, was the day Greg was doing everything he could to keep my spirits up during a particularly bad moment.  “Everything” included him rocking out to a Taylor Swift song – and getting caught by the Deputy Director doing so.  I still laugh when I remember the look on his face.

Those are just some of the reasons why leaving is so hard.

But four and half years ago when I walked away from Greenwood, not going to lie I was disheartened and if I’m being truly honest – tired of dispatching.  That should have been my Swan Song – leaving Greenwood.  But I decided to go to a new 911 center, and I did pretty well for myself, I became a trainer, an assistant supervisor… and finally a supervisor.  But even with the advancements I kept circling back to being tired of dispatching.  I can’t really even give an explanation as to why – it really hit me this past summer when after a bad shift I came home and that light bulb that flickers a bit above my head became very bright.  Last year my son gave up playing baseball much to me and my husband’s dismay.  He was good – very good – like a college coach told me he was Division 1 good.  But he quit.  He hated it.  Well I’m not sure he hated it, but he was tired of it.  And until that night last summer I never understood how you can be really good at something but not want to do it.  To be honest, I don’t even remember what had happened that made that one shift so bad that it turned the light bulb on, but I just remember coming home and seeing Dawson and thinking “Oh I get the baseball thing now.”

And I can brag…. Yes I’m good at what I do.  Like Division 1 good.  And I’m actually at the top of my game and it makes no sense to leave – but that’s what I’m doing.  It’s time.

How have I survived 17 years….

There’s no crying in dispatch.  Callers and other dispatchers smell fear so always be confident – even if you aren’t.  Do you job with the mindset that you don’t want to ever end up explaining to Anderson Cooper ‘what went wrong.’  It’s wrong to send the officer who was a jerk earlier to you to EVERY parking problem and barking dog complaint you can find – but it happens.  It’s also wrong to tell the Suzy Q Citizen that there’s never been a cat skeleton in a tree – send the fire truck to rescue Fluffy-it makes the fire guys look good.  It’s more fun to pretend that the 100th person calling in about the traffic light that’s not working is the first caller than to get irritated that 100 people have called – treat them like they just won the lottery, it won’t hit them until way later that you we’re probably just messing with them.  It’s OK to rapidly disconnect from the person calling to complain about the traffic back up when you know the fire department is working at a feverish pace to cut the family of four out of their minivan – they don’t need an explanation beyond people are injured.  Mrs. Kravitz (think Bewitched) doesn’t need to know why there are police cars at her neighbor’s house – if they choose to share that’s their business.  Dogs, kids and phones do not understand the concept of night shift – repeatedly explaining it to them doesn’t help.  You can come up with brilliant ideas at 3am if you have enough coffee – or you can just blast through all your lives on Candy Crush and Farm Hero Saga. Never think you have seen or heard it all – you have not.  You’re not really an evil person but the things we are forced to listen to everyday will eventually convince you that you are – you are actually the opposite of evil.  You also have a heart – trust me it’s buried down there somewhere underneath all of the layers of insulation you’ve piled on to protect it from the things you deal with every day.  Finally…. Be good at what you do even when you don’t want to.

#kthnxbye #deuces #byefelica


Beach Blanket Blog-O Part II


Greetings from the Beach Part II………

So we made it to the beach and Saturday was beautiful.  There was sun and sand and two great pools.  We ate at the bar across the street which bragged having “the best chicken wings on the key.”  Given that it is an 8 mile long island…. I will give them that.  I mean it’s hard to mess up chicken wings (unless you’re Hooters) but these weren’t spectacular or extraordinary, just wings – which was OK for a quick easy dinner.

Sunday morning brought a dark sky and rain.  Rain is Ok because you’re still at the beach, on vacation and hundreds of miles away from work problems and a house that needs re-painted and two very loving but needy dogs (thanks B for taking on the love puppies).  Dave decided several beach goers didn’t have a smartphone with a Weather Channel app as they seemed completely surprised by the rain when it hit.  My thought was that they were just that stupid because all you had to do was look due east and see the approaching downpour and dark sky.  Thunder and lightning might have been a clue too.  Anyway as the storm approached the lights flickered a few times.  No big deal.  Then the power went off and stayed off.  OK, still not a huge deal… I mean this is a place where they prepare for hurricanes surely a small storm wouldn’t keep the power out too long.  And there was the excitement of fire trucks as the fire alarm at the condo next to us went off.  An hour later, still not power.  Three hours later, still no power.  Teagan and I decided to venture out to see if the front desk had any information.  The elevator worked so we tip toed on it, held our breath and headed down hoping not to get stuck.  Several families were in the lobby but the front desk staff had decided to go ahead and take their lunch break so we waited.

This is when I met the family with a bigger black cloud over their vacation than I have luckily ever had.  There was a lot of commotion going on around a white minivan parked on the side of the building.  A man went out to meet with his family members and then quickly got in the car and gunned it out of the parking space and took it on 2 wheels around the corner to a different parking space out front.  I saw the windshield had been shattered.  More than likely by the flying chairs and chaise lounges from the condo next door as they were scattered all over the place.  The reckless minivan driver stomped into the front lobby to be met by his hysterical wife screaming at him “Can we just go home now?!?!  It’s bad enough we were stuck in the elevator for two @#$%^* hours now the &@%^*@ van’s windshield is broken.”  All we needed was a camera crew from TLC and we had a reality TV show!  Stompy McStomperson ignored his wife and headed to the elevator and got on with her still yelling at him as they got on.  An ever helpful/nosey condo guest then whispered to me that they had gotten stuck in the elevator for 2 hours and the emergency button didn’t work and they finally called 911 from their cell phone to get help.  I smiled and nodded…. Why tell Mrs. Kravitz that the emergency button in the elevator is hard-wired to dial 911?  Either way, supposedly 911 told them they would get to them eventually (LOL…. I am sooooo moving down here).  Eventually the generator at the condo kicked on and the elevators worked and they got off to find their broken windshield.

Finally the front desk clerk appeared and told us she had talked to the power company who told them they had no idea when the power would be back on because lightning had struck a substation and it was on fire (PS that’s where the one engine for the island was located thus the delay in elevator rescue).  After hearing the elevator story Teagan decided we should take the stairs, at the 4th floor she declared the elevators were now safe again.  Feeling pretty good about my intact Blazer and not getting stuck in the elevator we went to the indoor pool until the power came back on several hours later.  We haven’t seen Stompy or his wife since then and the van is gone so I’m assuming she won her argument and they went home.

So with power restored we resumed our vacation.  As I’m sitting out on the balcony on day five I’ve noticed that vacations kind of have their own little rhythm.  Every morning Dave and I watch the beach from the balcony – every morning one family member from a family (usually the dad) drags a cart full of umbrellas, chairs, boogie boards, shovels, buckets and towels out to the beach and stakes out a spot; about 9-10 am the families start straggling  out to the designated spot; depending on the age of the kids they volley back and forth between beach and pool until lunchtime; some bring their lunch outside some go inside to eat; they pack up their stuff between 5 and 6 and head in to go out to eat; then come back out at dusk with flashlights to look for sand crabs.  The only variation to this daily routine is sometimes at night they come out dressed in khaki shorts and white shirts and attempt to take pictures of squirmy kids before looking for sand crabs.

And the new thing I’ve noticed is the “keeping up the Joneses” going on at the beach.  If Family A has an umbrella the next day Family B has a pop up canopy then the next day the Family A has a pop up canopy bearing their favorite college team logo, then the next day the Family B brings a baby pool for the kids to sit in so Family A gets a bigger baby pool.  By Friday poor dad has to make 2 trips to the beach to set up this huge 10 x 12 living space complete with chairs, pools, chaise lounges, coolers, and battery operated fans.  One day I’m waiting to see a generator powered 60” flat screen TV, but so far no one has thought of it.

Maybe there will be a Part III tomorrow.  I haven’t gotten a chance to discuss the guy who runs the beach service here – “Coach.”  He’s a character!  And I’m having a new issue as a mom; the teenage girls who are gawking at Dawson.  Not a fan of bikini clad girls following him around and calling him “hot” when they think were out of earshot!!  Of course now we have to get a new door so his head and ego fit through.

(Note:  Dave suggested that some elevator emergency buttons call the non-emergency line, and based on the fact the FD has only one engine for the whole island there is more than likely only one dispatcher working and that one person may not have been answering non-emergency lines — he’s so smart!)