I'm a Dispatcher... What's Your Superpower? Part 2
By: Brandy Cooper
Editor's note: as part of our blog contest, this particular blog is part two in a series of six, each on the experiences of different telecommunicators.
Day 1 – September 2, 2014
A 24 year old girl walks into a communications center for the first time. Bright eyes full of pride and
happiness to start her new job as a 911 Dispatcher. Learning so many new words on her first day such as PSAP (Public Safety Answering Point, or 911 center), CAD (Computer Aided Dispatch), beat structure, etc. This girl had been told for years she should be a dispatcher by her father; a then state trooper, because she was such a good multi-tasker and good with computers. She figured that since she had grown up around police officers and hearing about the stories all her life that would somehow give her an advantage to the new role she has accepted…She was wrong.
Day 1,838 – September 13, 2019
A now 29 year old woman sits at her desk, considered a seasoned dispatcher after celebrating five years at her communications center. She received a pretty pin with a 5 on it and a heartfelt letter congratulating her on her service and dedication. But what happened during those five years? Who is this girl now?
“What is the craziest call you have ever gotten?”
That is the question I receive most from people that first find out what I do for a living. So for those of you who are not a 911 dispatcher or have ever wondered yourself, let me take you on a journey of why this question is now so hard to answer.
Everything affects everyone differently, let me start off by saying that. No one person handles stress the same way. Am I proud of what I do? Very much so! But every good thing comes at a cost…sometimes a high one. My answer to that common question is…I don’t know anymore. I’ve been doing this for five years and to be honest, every horrible thing that has happened starts to run together after a while. And most days, I don’t want to even re-open those old wounds, especially to a stranger who could never truly understand unless they have done what I do. I’ve heard countless screams of loved ones that have lost someone irreplaceable to them. I’ve handled countless overdoses, auto accidents where people have been ejected and dead on arrival, self-inflicted wounds, the pain in the voice of a man who found his girlfriend deceased after a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, stabbing victims, multiple casualty shootings, etc. I’ve talked people down from suicides and helped deliver babies all in the same night.
I could tell you about the biggest trigger I had from a phone call that occurred right after my grandfather died. It was a call from an elderly woman who found her husband not breathing. He was the same age as my grandfather, and she begged and begged me to please help her make her husband breathe again. After what seemed like hours of CPR instructions, we weren’t able to get him breathing again. I had to hold it together until the call was over and go cry my eyes out outside, feeling so helpless and hurting for that poor woman and also for myself. But even then, that stranger wouldn’t really understand. You can’t reach out for help because only your coworkers will truly understand what you are going through.
I don’t feel things like normal people anymore. You become colder…numb almost, just to get through the days. A defense mechanism if you will. To the outside world you are rude, brash, matter of fact, unapproachable. etc. They don’t understand what has made you this way. I’m just protecting myself. I make sacrifices others don’t have to. My days off change, I get mandated, I work on my off days due to the endless overtime. I sacrifice time with my family, especially on the holidays, and then realize how much time has gone by. You take phone calls on thanksgiving and Christmas from families fighting with each other, when you would give anything to be with your family. I get the negative every day. I talk to people on the worst days of their lives. I have to learn to filter out the negativity and not take it home with me. Compartmentalizing my life becomes a normal everyday thing. I don’t watch the news because I live the events at work before they get to the news. I am now desensitized to things a human being shouldn’t be. It wouldn’t shock me to see someone overdosed on the street or see a bad fatal auto accident like it may shock you.
I recently worked a night where we lost one of our own officers. He was struck by a vehicle while out of his cruiser investigating an accident. He was quickly transported to the hospital and later succumbed to his injuries. He never regained consciousness. I was training that night. I still remember the screams from his coworker as he cried out for an ambulance for him - his friend, his boss. You didn’t even have to understand the words he was speaking to know something was wrong. A tone that makes the hairs on your arm stand up and goosebumps appear on the back of your neck. Your heart sinks. Something happens to you during those moments. You almost become a robot for a moment, springing into action and assisting in any way you can. You don’t think about your feelings, or the gravity of what is happening in the moment. You resort back to your training and you do what your instincts have been trained to do. Meanwhile, trying to be strong for your trainee and make sure they are okay during this tragic event and make sure they are also using this as a learning experience. You have to be perfect…there is NO room for error! Your adrenaline rushes…your heart races…then, it’s over. I went home that morning drained, heartbroken. I had nightmares all morning and woke up in cold sweats and having panic attacks. That night, my life changed. My worst fear had come true. Losing one of our own. You can hear stories, read articles, train for it…but nothing, and I mean NOTHING, can ever prepare you for that feeling…for that loss. It took me several months before I felt “normal” again. Therapy helped tremendously. We worked through the feelings I had not just from the job in general, but the event itself.
A dispatcher truly gives every bit of themselves to make sure you have someone to call when you need 911. We stand among you, but we are not the same. I am proud of what I do, and proud of the people I work with. But I am not the same person as the girl on day one that walked through those doors. So inexperienced, so clueless. I have been humbled, broken, inspired, exhausted, angry, sad, happy, proud, and everything in between. I have my demons, the things I keep locked inside and visit only when I am by myself. I fight internal battles every day to serve my community. “Why do you do it if it creates so much stress?” Because someone has to! Someone has to get up every day or every night and sit in that chair and take that call or dispatch that officer or ambulance. Someone has to carry that responsibility, and every so often you come across that brave individual who accepts the responsibility and the sacrifice, and finds a way to overcome. Those heroes are your dispatchers!
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