My 911 Sit Along

A couple of weeks ago I did a 911 ‘sit along’ as part of my citizen’s police academy. This came just a few days after after I’d heard presentations from our local SWAT and negotiation teams and, sadly, just a week or so before Colorado experienced yet another school shooting. Taken all together, not only do I have a renewed appreciation for the work of our local law enforcement but also a deeper understanding of the team effort that kicks into high gear when emergencies occur.

It was a relatively uneventful day when I did the 911 sit along, which meant I got the opportunity to have a more in-depth discussion with one of the operators about what it was really like to be a 911 dispatcher. First off, it is not for the faint of heart (obviously) or for those who can’t multi-task. Given the level of technology these days, dispatchers have to be able to cope with monitoring and entering data in at least three open computer screens (and that’s not including CCTV footage or maps that transmit police unit locations in real time) all while listening to to the multiple radio frequencies constantly transmitting in their ears, as well as actually fielding and dealing with the 911 calls coming in. The dispatcher I was assigned to was a veteran of the Aurora shooting (when 911 calls flooded all the local centers) as well as the many youth suicides that our community has, unfortunately, had to deal with in recent months.

Our local 911 center also fields all non-urgent calls to our local police department so I got to witness calls that ranged from the life-threatening (a driver passed out in his car in the middle of traffic) to the mundane (rabbit trapped in window well). Even on the day I was there, I saw multiple incidents being referred to our local school resource officers as well as the emails coming in to the 911 center via the local, anonymous tip line, Safe2Tell, about potential threats to local schools. It became increasingly clear that mental health calls are a huge part of our local 911 dispatcher’s lives and I got to witness the delicate balancing act local law enforcement plays in trying to mitigate against the overwhelming number of tips and calls they receive about schools and students. As the mother of two 8th graders, it was sobering indeed.

One of my key questions to the dispatcher I was assigned to, was how she dealt with the stresses of her job. Being married to a police officer, helped, she said, as he understood what she had to face and they could talk and decompress together. It was also clear that our local police department provides a supportive environment that ensures everyone receives the counseling they need, particularly after distressing events like the recent spate of teen suicides.

It’s hard not to reflect on the events of this past week, and not appreciate the role of both 911 dispatchers and law enforcement. I’m sure our local dispatchers fielded calls as local schools went on lockdown or, as my sons’ school did, secure perimeter, in response to the STEM school shooting. No doubt our local police officers rushed to the scene to provided backup before our victim advocates arrived on scene to help provide parents and teachers with the support they needed.

The police citizen’s academy has given me tremendous insight into how our local police department operates and made me realize how little I understood the complexity and role of our local 911 dispatchers. After spending just a few hours in the 911 center, my writer’s brain was whirring with possible characters and plots for a novel, but now, given the events of the past week, it feels like it’s all hitting a little too close to home…so I’m going to  put the book ideas aside and hug my teenage boys a little tighter instead.

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15 thoughts on “My 911 Sit Along

  1. This reminds me of the tour we got of the command center via the Orlando Civilian’s Police Academy. Huge room, lots of people working, keeping track of what was going on via phones and three monitors.

    Then I moved to Teller County, Colorado and did a ride-along. My officer gave me a tour of the station, where Dispatch was 2 desks, only one being occupied. And a paperback book on that one. When I created a character who worked Dispatch in a small town police station, I called for more information to make sure I got a response to a 911 call right. She said the calls coming in on the 911 line have a different ring, and usually anyone in the station comes in to see what’s happening.

    • I was impressed with the operation – especially as we’re not a huge community compared to saw neighboring Denver or Aurora. They are also always on standby for a major incident – since Columbine there’s a dedicated radio channel so all the local law enforcement can communicate with each other. I think what sets our local police operation apart is the service and compassion the 911 dispatchers can provide (as they aren’t as stretched as say Denver) and the proactive steps they are allowed to take (they do a lot of the research the patrol officers need out on the field – plate and license checks etc.).

  2. I am a 911 dispatcher. I absolutely hate my job and can’t wait to retire. It’s more stressful than anything I’ve ever done and sometimes makes me a little suicidal.

  3. Clare, thank you for shining a spotlight on the underappreciated heroes on the other end of millions of desperate phone calls. What if you can’t get them the help they need in time? What if, despite your best efforts, tragedy still occurs? The pressure must be staggering.

    When our sheriff’s citizen’s academy toured our local 911 center, we learned about the decompression room that was set aside as a quiet sanctuary for dispatchers. Until I saw that, I’d never realized how great the toll the job must take.

    To 911man, thank you, although that’s inadequate compensation for what you do. I hope the calls that haunt you can be balanced by the good you do and the lives you save, even though you may never know about those successful outcomes. Please take care of yourself.

  4. When I was in college, I took a two-week job as a security company dispatcher until my regular summer job opened up. Our patrol area was in a desert area full of huge, expensive homes, many of them our accounts. Because we were not sworn police officers, our procedures differed slightly from those of the city police.

    One night, one of our then-famous nighttime thunderstorm rolled in, and the radio frequencies were all hisses and buzzes and “10-9s” (repeat, say again). Entire sky-filled sheet lightning turned our city blue.

    That night, I had a truly frightening experience. We used the same 10-codes and police codes as our local police did. While I was handling routine radio traffic, I suddenly heard the dreaded “999” call. Code 999 means shots fired, Officer down, all available units respond to assist. It is radio code that turns young men into old, breaks you out into cold sweats, and panic that you fight to control.

    Worse, on that stormy night, it was impossible to tell who had said it. With jittery hands, sweat dripping off my nose, and blood pounding my ears, I called the supervisor. (Though a police dispatcher might have immediately called for a roll-out of all available, and not-so-available units, our protocol was to first call the on-duty supervisor.) I told him I had no idea who had called in the 999. The supervisor’s instructions were immediate: call every unit and do a welfare check. My fear increased as I raised each unit who could hear me through the lightning storm. I was horrified as I made my calls, imagining a patrolman bleed to death, or worse.

    Finally, after calling each patrol unit, I had one, unit 99, who did not respond. I called the supervisor who then instructed me to roll out a general area search of all available officers, and to call the police and advise them we had an unaccounted for patrolman. I was busy for nearly a full half-hour as I carried out the protocols and supervisor’s instructions.

    Then I heard from the missing patrolman: “Ninety-nine, ten-eight.” (This is unit 99, and I’m returning to duty.) I wanted to scream “WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? at the patrolman. Instead, I ask about his welfare status. Everything was, he said, 10-4, okay. “Why’re you askin’?”

    I ignored his question for the moment and immediately called the supervisor. The supervisor instructed me to instruct our recently-missing officer to meet him at a certain intersection. Slowly. Slowly, a little at a time, my heart-rate returned to normal, and I could breath again.

    The blue-sky sheets of lightning continued as I called off the search and returned to my normal routines.

    Finally, two-hours later, the supervisor pulled into the radio-shack and strolled in. This is what happened: the patrolling officer had heard the noise of a loud party going on in the house of one of our accounts. He wanted to be certain everything was okay, so he turned down a desert drive. Power lines were overhead. As he wanted to observe the situation, he pulled up and parked. When he called, he followed radio procedure. Another one of our units called him just about the same time. Unit 99 didn’t understand because of the static and, presumably, overhead power lines. When unit 99 responded, the other unit ended the exchange with “10-9, 99.” Because of the electricity and buzzing and static in the near, all I heard was the “-9, 99.”

    The supervisor thought it was funny. I wanted to climb up on the supervisor’s shoulders and plant a 10-megaton you-know-what in his face.

    Two weeks later, the manager of the company I worked on my regular summer job, called. I was relieved and more than happy to go to work for him. Heck, delivering and picking up clean and dirty diapers for a diaper delivery service didn’t require ANY 9s or 10s or any other numbers like that.

    • What a crazy night!! This would be why I’d end up having a heart attack as a 911 operator…At our facility they frequently get wrong calls from offices in the area that use 9 to dial an outside call. Guess how many people end up dialing 911…

  5. My first real, full time job, and I kept it for over 20 years. It was many things, but never, ever dull. I learned so much from those years, mostly about people and what’s important to them, and how they react under stress. It’s been invaluable in my second career as a writer. I’ve been so fortunate to have two jobs that I love; so many people don’t even get one.

    Best memory? In a moment of extreme emergency, and without knowing who it was, I yelled at the chief of police to shut up because he was yammering behind me making it difficult to hear units on the radio. And he did. And apologized to ME later. In those moments, the 911 dispatcher really is the boss in that room.

  6. I was a 911 dispatcher for several years. We took calls for everything. Ambulance, Police, Fire, Animal control, everything. I was the dispatcher for active hostage situations, shootings, riot control, etc. I talked to a person on the phone as he was being murdered. I was the initial person talking to a man who was trying to get into a house and kill his sister. I took some very high-stress calls.

    However, I have a gift. Or maybe it’s a curse. When I walk out the door, I can just turn it off. I don’t know why I can do this, but things just didn’t really affect me. Once after what the department determined was “an especially disturbing” call, they sent me to counseling. After one session, the counselor decided I didn’t need counseling and sent me back.

    I think something is not wired correctly in my brain.

    • Brett, you’re exceedingly lucky, and perhaps the perfect material for dispatch.
      A good friend of mine has that same ability. We call it compartmentalizing. He can denote an issue as “not his problem” or even “not a problem worth worrying about at this moment” and just boxes it away!
      I envy you both greatly for it!

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  8. Wow. Very interesting. I’ve heard a few stories from my husband, (he is a retired law enforcement officer), but the personal recounting from the 911 dispatcher’s is haunting.

    The one harrowing story he told me was actually about my cousin. A paraplegic, he was home alone when a fire broke out near his bed. He called 911 to report the fire. While firefighters were on route, the fire reached the paint supplies and reloading powder my cousin and his wife had stored in the bedroom closet. the time the first responders arrived, the was too hot to enter the home. I can’t imagine the dispatchers having to listen, knowing no on could help.

    On a positive note, my another cousin was captain of the fire department that responded to the call. (Small town). I can’t imagine his horror not only that they couldn’t reach the victim, but that it was his cousin also. After that incident, he vowed no one else would suffer through that type of tragedy, and he organized a petition that all homes for paraplegics have sprinkler systems installed.

    It was hard enough on the family, let alone the dispatchers and firemen. It does take special dedication to do those jobs. Bless all first responders and their dispatch teams.

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