I'm a Dispatcher... What's Your Superpower? Part 1
Updated: Feb 27
Editor's note: This special blog comes to us from the winner of our first ever blog contest: Janelle Williams, of Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Congratulations and thank you!
This blog is part one in a series of six, each on the experiences of different telecommunicators.
For most people, including myself, being a 911 dispatcher is not something that you grow up believing that you’ll be. Police officer, firefighter, paramedic, doctor or nurse are all careers that kids dress up as on Halloween or for career day at their school, but you don’t see a kindergartner rocking a sweet headset and radio.
I grew up wanting to be a lot of things; marine biologist, doctor, medical examiner, forensic scientist, all great things to be, I even started college on a pre-med track and finished off in journalism and communications. Now my official title is “Emergency Services Dispatcher.” What does that mean? Well, I answer 911 and non-emergency calls and dispatch police, fire and EMS. My department doesn’t have a separate call-taker and radio dispatch section, we do it all. I work with at least two other co-workers at a time on a shift and cover two different cities in the county. I’m one of those “weird” third shifters, nocturnal, not unlike my favorite animals, owls.
I started my journey into the madness that is this job in May of 2015. I went through several months of our training program that introduced me to police radio and non-emergency calls before I was signed-off to be on my own. At our department, we are trained on these first and we handle them on our own for a while before we go back into training on 911 calls and dispatching fire and EMS. It helps us get our bearings into the basics before we start handling more intense calls - though anyone familiar with our job knows that there are plenty of emergencies called in on the non-emergency line (and of course plenty of non-emergencies that are called in to 911). I’ve been at my department since then, and I’ve even recently been crazy enough to pick up a part-time substitute position at a neighboring department. In my four years, I’ve learned tons of new things, I've developed new skills, I’ve made friends, but I’ve also heard horrible things and discovered how repeated exposure to the traumas of our job change a person.
Trauma. Let’s unpack that word because I think when most people hear it, it comes across as very heavy. In the Oxford English Dictionary, trauma is defined as a “deeply distressing or disturbing experience.” Most of what we hear on the phone doesn’t fall under this category, but the calls that do leave marks that can be invisible. Unlike wounds and scars that an officer or firefighter might carry, these wounds sink deep into our core and change us in ways we never thought a phone call or radio transmission could.
Imagine having to take a call from a mother reporting her infant isn’t breathing and is blue. Imagine having to hear the mother’s cries as she tries and fails to revive her child even through your instructions or her own knowledge of infant CPR. Both parties did everything they could, but there was nothing that either could do to save the child. Just a few minutes after you hang up, you take another 911 call and continue with the last half hour of your shift as though nothing has happened.
I took that call in August, just 10 days before my friend who passed away in 2018’s birthday. My emotions were already high from the memory of his death and it was hard to deal with every day that I came into work. Add on a call like a baby death and it was overwhelming. That last 30 minutes of my shift was the hardest I’ve ever worked. Before disconnecting the phone with the mother, I reassured her that she had done a great job with her CPR and that the officers and paramedics were going to take over and do everything they could. As I said goodbye, my voice was starting to break. I stood up from my chair and walked in small circles, wanting to run as far as I could from my console and from that call but I knew that I couldn’t because there were other things going on. I forced myself to sit back down and as soon sa I did, the 911 line was ringing again. “911, where is your emergency?” I answered and pushed that mother’s frantic voice as far out of my mind as I could.
That shift seemed like it took forever to end. I remained relatively numb to it until I went into the bathroom after shift and had to cover my mouth so my involuntary scream and sob didn’t echo. I composed myself enough to make it out of the building, somewhat hyperventilating until I reached my car, and hoping that I didn’t see anyone in the hallway on my way out. When I finally was out, I allowed myself to let go. I was overwhelmed with emotions for that mother and family that had just lost their child.
On the drive home I put on a podcast, just to try and create noise, but I didn’t really listen. I got to my driveway in one piece, but I sure don’t remember how I got there, it’s as if my drive never even happened. That’s what trauma does to you, it seeps into your core and affects you in ways that you never thought possible. I don’t have kids and I don’t want them-I never really have, but the pain of taking a call that involved the death of someone so young and vulnerable affects everyone. I spent the following days checking up with the officers who responded to the scene, and I’m glad I know I had them and my other co-workers to lean on if I needed anything.
It has been a month since that call, and while the initial trauma and reactions have passed, I know they will come flooding back at times when I don’t expect them. Humans aren’t built to handle things like that, but because this world needs protectors and helpers, we carry on answering when they call.
Since I began my career, I’ve noticed that I’ve become even more averse to people and crowds than I was before I started. I hate going to stores during peak shopping hours and I hate sitting in traffic. I often see the worst in people before I see the good and I’m a bit more pessimistic than I used to be. I hate watching the news and I can’t watch shows or a movie without also doing something else. If I just try to sit and watch tv, I get restless or I fall asleep depending on how my day has gone. I’ve learned how to sleep on a variety of sleep schedules because to attend some trainings I must work my 8-hour shift and attend 8 hours of training right after. With commute times I’m often up for 24 or more hours on those days (which are luckily usually only every few months.) I’ve also learned that I do have a high tolerance to caller’s yelling at me or swearing at me or otherwise disrespecting me, which doesn’t happen all that often where I work, but when it does I am able to respond “appropriately” and not by responding and letting it get to me.
My career has led to plenty of good things amongst the bad calls I’ve taken, including finding the importance of mental health and peer support for first responders. I am proud to be part of my department’s own career survival team, as well as a county wide group which runs a crisis line for police officers and dispatchers. I’ve gone through extensive training on how to respond to my own peers when they need help after bad calls or after the length of a career facing the public’s worst day.
My training has taught me patience, understanding, and how to care for myself and others in a workforce that has had to come off as the strongest for too long and has seen so many tragedies in the form of first responder suicides over the years. I’ve also met others who share the same passions as I do and I’ve learned how to connect with others quickly and confidently.
In 2018, I was fortunate enough to attend the APCO (Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials) Conference, the national conference for 911 dispatchers. In those few days of the conference, hearing the tragedies their centers had dealt with and hearing the resilience of people doing what I do impressed me and made me feel like I wasn't alone with the feelings I had after a difficult call. It solidified my career choice and I knew that this is where I belong.
The thin gold line is thriving thanks to the wonderful people behind those heroic headsets and who will always be there protecting the citizens and the protectors behind all the other thin lines. It’s a group I’m proud to be part of and I’m so glad that I get to proclaim every day that #IAM911!
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