By: Kjelse Rittmeyer
Editor's note: as part of our blog contest, this particular blog is part three in a series of six, each on the experiences of different telecommunicators.
"My brother is on the floor by his bed, and I think he's dead!"
"There's someone outside, and they're trying to get in."
"What time is it?"
"Help me - I've been taken by a man in a truck!"
"My 8-year-old son will not go to school."
"We're at home, and my wife is about to give birth!"
"I've killed my 10-year-old girlfriend, and I have her aunt and mom tied up in the bathroom."
"My neighbor's shed is on fire, and it's about to catch the house!"
"There are aliens in my attic!"
There are certain lines of work that get under your skin, whether you want them to or not. They begin to run in your blood and change you, for better or worse. One of those lines of work is emergency services.
I used to work full-time as a 911 dispatcher, then had a baby, moved, and two years later got a part-time job as a dispatcher near my new home. Every single day for those two years that I did not work as a dispatcher, I was reminded of that job. The specific calls and incidents, feelings that coursed through me as I answered the phone or the radio, the people I worked with, how I was changed by that job, and of how much I loved being a dispatcher. Because I did love it, with all my heart. It took me forever to realize that I loved it, and once I realized I loved it, the end of my time at my first agency was starting to come into sight. When I wasn't working as a dispatcher, I longed for the job, and was so excited to have the opportunity to dispatch again.
Each of the lines written in the introduction I’ve heard when I answered 911. I answered the ringing line with "911; where is your emergency?" and waited with half-held breath for the reply. Was this call going to be one that I dreaded, with an active shooter, someone needing CPR or a child that was kidnapped? Sometimes I would internally breathe a sigh of relief as I began entering a vehicle burglary call that occurred three hours ago, and I would relax. Other times adrenaline would course through me as I began entering a high-priority call - an accident with injuries, a fire, a shooting, or a burglary in progress.
When you're a dispatcher, you only hear one end of the story. You don't know everything that's going on. And you try to imagine what is going on through snippets as the phone is handed from one person to another or is placed on a table as people scream and fight.
The snippets come in even farther apart when a story unfolds over the radio. "Uuuuuuugggghhh..." an officer moans over the radio, "I've been hit." Hit by what: A bullet? A person? A car? Other voices chime, "The vehicle is flipped over!" "Fire..." "We need JAWS now!" You're so afraid that the officer is going to die, and you don't know exactly what happened. You want to help, you want to leave your desk and rush in person to where the officer's GPS last showed on the map, but then you realize that you are helping by sending the fire trucks and ambulances or other officers. The only other thing you can do is pray. Only later do you learn the full story - a drunk driver hit the officer's vehicle and flipped it; the officer and passenger were trapped inside, and a fire started in the vehicle. They all survived, but only by the grace of God. Often, these stories end in death.
Sometimes the voices over the radio tell tragic endings. Wildfires are spreading over land, and your agency is working with other agencies, all teaming together to fight fires. There aren't enough men, there aren't enough trucks. Homes are being destroyed! "There are supposed to be people in that trailer!" you hear someone from another agency cry out over the radio as he calls for more units to the location. Twenty minutes later, the occupants are confirmed dead. A day later, you read in the news about a dead mother and baby in a burned trailer, and you cry as you recall what you heard on the radio. You try not to imagine what happened inside that trailer, and you succeed, because you have built a wall around your mind that keeps that type of empathy out.
Then there are those times when you get to witness wonderful things, things like a husband helping his wife give birth to a healthy baby as he is coached over 911 on how to do it. Things like officers stepping in to take another officer's report call when that officer has had a rough day. Things like firefighters volunteering to take the time to help an old lady with her smoke detector that keeps going off. Things like a 911 caller calling back a day later to say "thank you" for helping him on the phone and "thank you" to the officer who took his report. People's lives are saved, property is kept safe, children are found, and hysterical callers are calmed. Suicides are prevented, violent men and women are locked up, and families are reconciled.
I have had some really rough days. When I worked for the first agency, there was a point where I started applying to other jobs because I didn't think I could continue to handle the stress of the job. But God gave me the strength to get through the hard times and the long hours. He pulled me through that point in time where I wanted to leave, and he showed me how much I had learned and how much satisfaction the job gave me. And I realized I was in love with it!
When I had a baby and we moved and I had to quit the first time, I knew one day I would go back to it. I enjoy helping the callers and the officers and firefighters more than I ever expected. I enjoy the occasional (ok, maybe a little more than occasional) rush of adrenaline that comes with some of the calls. I enjoy the laughs shared at the crazy stories and unique people we encounter. And I enjoy the camaraderie with my co-workers, both dispatchers and those out on the streets. There is a strong bond between emergency services personnel that much of the public doesn’t realize. Maybe other occupations have a bond too, but it's different when your lives are in the hands of your co-workers. You have to trust, think quickly, and get it right the first time. Because whether you are an officer, a firefighter, or a dispatcher, you are a lifeline to someone, and you don't want to let them down.
I love my job as a dispatcher. What started out as just a job, has become a dream career. It has changed me as I have tried to help others through their worst days. It will continue to change me. And, I will always be kind to the 911 operator or to the officer pulling me over, because I don't know what kind of day they had yesterday, are having today, or will have tomorrow.
-Kjelse Rittmeyer, Sanpete County Sheriff's Office, Utah
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