Saturday, June 2, 2012

Things your 911 operator would tell you if anyone were asking

How often have you watched a crime show on TV and saw the program jump from the commission of the crime to the arrival of the police? Have you ever wondered how the police knew to show up? Unless it is a very small town the phone was not answered by the police officer who came out to the scene of the crime. It probably wasn't even a police officer answering the phone. It probably a civilian, usually female, who goes by the title like Dispatcher, Communications person, Call taker or 911 operator. Its a hard, challenging, rewarding, infuriating job. 911 operators are the invisible link that make Public Safety work. Here's a little information about what goes on in our world.

Most dispatch centers have anywhere from 2 to 10 people answering the phone at any given time. In bigger departments some are assigned to taking calls while others are assigned to dispatching the various services. In smaller departments one or two people may do everything. Centers are staffed 24 hrs a day, weekends and holidays also.The trend has been towards combining services...police,fire and ems together, also towards combining multiple departments, sometimes whole counties into one center.

We are often called 911 operators, but in most departments we take all incoming calls for police, fire and ems. Therefore the cardiac arrest call that we gave CPR instructions for, or the bank robbery call, can be immediately followed by a call about a junk car on the street, a loose dog, or loud music. We have no way of knowing what will be on the other end of the line. Unfortunately in some ways 911 is almost too successful, everyone knows how to call it and they don't have the time or the capacity to look up other numbers. Also, unlike many 411 services we don't charge for calls. I frequently take calls that begin either "this isn't an emergency but I didn't know the non emergency number" or "my phone is out of minutes and this is the only number I can call".

One of the most stressful aspects of our job is that we usually don't learn how things turn out after we get off the phone, especially on medical calls. The very hardest calls for most of us to deal with involve children, or people we know. Sooner or later we all get one and it can be traumatic. Every dispatcher I know has few calls they carry around with them. that they can't forget.

I have been doing this job for more than 20 years, right thru the proliferation of cell phones into the hands of virtually everyone. Cell phones can be lifesavers, but they are also a huge nuisance for us. For one thing it means that every time anything happens we have not one or two people calling, but frequently dozens of calls. They at least are calling about actual crimes. There are bigger headaches with cell phones.

All working cell phones call 911, even if they have no service or minutes. Many people do not realize this and let their children play with old cell phones. Most children these days are taught how to call 911 at preschool. I have had many conversations with 2 yr olds who are not really verbal and who don't quite get the meaning of "take the phone to a grownup". Older children are more aware that they are actually calling 911. I actually had a child take the phone to mom and say "I called 911" only to hear the parent bragging to others in the room about their child's great imagination, or even tell them to stop making things up the phone doesn't work. On the other hand I have heard really young kids do amazing things over the phone in actual emergencies.

Even more annoying however are the calls no one (intentionally) makes. This has gotten worse in the era of touch phones, which really facilitate pocket dialing, to use the polite term. Half my 911 calls in a given day are from no one at all, except the inside of their jacket or jeans or purse. The sound of people walking with their pocket dialing cellphones in their pocket can be very loud, it sounds kind of like crunching thru a huge pile of fall leaves. .

Another misconception people have about emergency services is that if they call 911 they will somehow get a faster police response simply because they called 911 instead of calling the non emergency line. Police departments do not maintain separate 911 cruisers to respond to calls that come over those lines. All calls, however received, go into the same lineup, and are taken in order of priority. A homicide or a robbery is high priority no matter how we learn about it. A barking dog or loud music is not.

I have heard profanity on phone calls that the MPAA would give a NC17 rating to. I am not talking about major emergencies. Its understandable people using excessive obscenities in life and death situations. I'm talking about routine non life threatening calls. I have taken calls about dogs and loud music in which enough F bombs were dropped to make Bully look G rated. And I won't even get into the things I have been called. Fortunately before I did this job I worked in a city rec center, so at least I am no longer being cussed out in person.

There are compensations of course. Most dispatch jobs are covered by civil service so there is seniority and benefits.There is usually a lot of job security as dispatcher centers are frequently understaffed. Voluntary overtime is almost always available, however there is also involuntary overtime in a lot of centers when not enough people can be persuaded to take it voluntarily. Not knowing when we go into work what time we will leave work is another stress factor.

911 operators are considered emergency personnel in most cities, they are under no strike clauses, and subjected as previously mentioned to non voluntary holdovers, but are classed and paid as clerical personnel. They are seldom noticed unless something goes wrong or a mistake is made, then they are viral on YouTube. But every time someone calls for help and gets it, a call taker was involved in the chain of assistance.

Like most other professions we have a "day", National Telecomunicators Day. Its April 11th (411). Guess what day was "our day" until 2001?  Police and Fire call takers and dispatchers were unsung heroes that day too. Frequently they deal with public emergencies while not being able to find out what is going on with their own homes, their own families.

Its a job with lots of ups and downs. And there are a lot of funny and stupid calls we take. And there are a lot of stories with satisfying, rewarding outcomes. But they are stories for another day.


  1. I can't wait to read some of those stories. I didn't know you guys had a day and that the terrorists "rescheduled" it for you. Cheers to you and your co workers for all that you do. It's difficult and probably thankless for the most part. I know I couldn't do it. It would freak me out.

  2. I was thinking the same thing, WHAT KIND of stories? :) Those would be interesting! Sounds like a challenging job to say the least.

    1. Mostly what I write about in relation to work is humorous and in general terms, usually about the charm of conversing with small kids who are playing with mommies cell phone.

  3. Yes, what they said ^^... You must have ah-mazing stories! Although I am curious, would that be a confidentiality issue? I am in healthcare and I am terrified to mention a word about anything relating to work on my blog because it's just not worth the hassle to me if somehow I accidentally revealed something I shouldn't have.

    1. You are right Pam, there are confidentiality issues involved. There are also procedures were sign covering what we can or cant say in public about out jobs. That is why my major work on life on the 911 line will be waiting until I retire (which is only a few years away). Even then though, I wouldn't get into specifics about individual calls, for the reasons you mention....