Updated: Feb 10, 2019
By: Cori Johnson
The other night, I was working second shift as a call taker. It was an average shift, not much in the way of excitement or major incidents. About thirty minutes before my shift was over, I took a 911 call…
“911, where is your emergency?”
A male voice that sounded sad and muffled said, “I need help.”
I feverishly hit all of my ALI [Automatic Location Identification] buttons to bring up his location and asked him what the address was so I could send him help. He wasn’t really answering me. All that I could hear was him crying. I kept pressing him for the address, continuing to hit my ALI buttons and finally his location popped up on my map and he confirmed the address.
As I typed away in CAD [Computer Aided Dispatch], I asked him, “What’s going on there, sir? What kind of help do you need?”
He continued to cry and sniffled as he spoke, “I just don’t even want to be here anymore.”
My instincts told me that he sounded like he might be intoxicated and what I understood that he’s just told me is that he wants to kill himself. I add that to my call notes and change the nature of the call to a Suicide Threat.
“Sir, what do you mean by that? Are you saying, you want to kill yourself?”
He confirms what I asked and goes on to tell me that he has consumed a gallon of vodka.
I thought to myself, “Yikes. That’s a LOT of vodka!”
While my conversation with the caller is taking place, one of my partners has shipped the call to deputies and another partner has started rescue for him. Meanwhile, I’m on the line trying to calm him down and reassure him that help is on the way.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
We’ll call him Bob.
“What makes you want to kill yourself?”
We ask in that specific way because it’s shocking to hear. There is no fluffed-up or fancy way of saying it because that shock sometimes helps people realize what they’re thinking about and it may get them to change their mind. “Kill”, sounds so permanent and violent, right? It’s a terrible word. And let me tell you, phrasing it this way WORKS.
Bob goes on to explain to me that one of his family members passed away a couple of days before and they were very close to each other. He feels abandoned. I can relate to him. I feel abandoned too, having lost my mom 8 years ago. I use this feeling to identify with my caller and it aids in my line of questioning.
I add what he’s told me to the notes of the call, because, "...if it’s not in the notes, it didn’t happen." I could tell that Bob really wanted help. It’s incredible how just a change in your inflection or tone of voice, can turn a call around. Normally, when people call and are intoxicated, they’re angry or mean. Not this guy, he didn’t want to die like his family members.
Bob then tells me about how another family member died a few months back, “Everyone’s fucking dying around me, man! Even my dog is old and dying!”
“Bob, I know you’re feeling sad and I am so sorry.” I say. “Death is really hard to process. Have you been able to talk to anyone about it? A pastor, a family member or a counselor?”
***”Man! Where are the units?” I think to myself. It feels like it's taking an eternity for them to get there!***
Bob tells me that he can’t talk to anyone, he has other siblings but they don’t have time for him. So I decide to prod a little more.
“Bob, have you told your other siblings how you feel?” I ask. “They might be feeling the same way and can validate how you’re feeling. You’re not alone in your grief. I know you’re hurting. I can tell you that it will get better. It takes time but it does get better. You have to talk to people. Keeping it bottled up does more damage than it does good.”
I hear sniffling in the background and he tells me, “I know. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to be this way. You know, I just had open heart surgery a couple of months ago. I know I shouldn’t be drinking but man, people keep dying around me!”
“Bob,” I say, “You’ve been given a second chance at life with that heart surgery. That’s AMAZING! You need to live your life to the fullest. That second chance? Not many people get that. I’m sure your family that has passed wouldn’t want you to waste your second chance.”
“Yeah, you’re right.” He says. “ What’s your name again?”
“I’m Cori.” I reply.
“Cori, you’re so right.” He says. “You’re an angel. You’re just so nice. You know, I worked with teens and kids showing them how to help others through a nationwide organization. I did that. I’m a helper. I don’t want to live like this.”
“I know you don’t, Bob.” I say to him. “That’s why you called me. I’m so glad I was able to answer your call tonight. You did the right thing.”
**Are they there yet? It feels like FOREVER.**
Bob and I continued to talk a few more minutes. We chatted about his hobbies, his ailing dog, his family. I told him that he was brave. He knew he needed help and that we were going to get him the help he needed and wanted. He thanked me for being there for him, but in all honesty, he was there for me.
This call reminded me of why I do this job. Every day. We can’t save everyone, but the ones we can, those are the real gems.
Mental health is vital to everyday living. Our consciousness guides us and if it’s clouded by things like grief, self-doubt, anxiety or depression, it tricks us into thinking that this is what our life is destined to be, but isn’t. Using meditation or prayer or music, exercise, art - whatever - to clear your head and center yourself is vital. We are tasked with people’s worst days every day. Taking time for yourself is essential.
This call in particular was one where I went home feeling pretty damn good. That doesn’t happen often. Mostly, we second guess ourselves and our decisions, wondering if we did everything we could to help or to save someone. Did we dispatch fast enough? Were our notes clear enough? Did we do everything right? So many questions flood our minds with doubt and worry after calls, but when we get calls like these, or calls with good outcomes, we go home feeling good! Those days are just the best!
A Note from the Editor:
We had a chance to listen to the audio, and as great as this blog is, it simply doesn’t do it it’s full justice. Cori did an amazing job. What’s lost in translation here isn’t what was said, but HOW she said it. There is no doubt her empathy and compassion had a tremendous impact on this man and his situation.
Another aspect you’re not seeing is here is time. The total time on this call was over 17 minutes. Our county isn’t particularly rural (population 700K+), but some areas are pretty spread out, so this represents one of those moments where location, time of day, and traffic can have a major impact on response times over larger coverage areas.
Cori’s ability to think quickly, empathize, and keep him calm and engaged during such a lengthy call aren’t just telltale signs of a devoted, veteran dispatcher, they are also indicative of the type of exemplary service that we should all strive for and be proud of.
Sometimes, all we need is a kind and reassuring voice to remind us that things aren’t as bad as they seem. Well done, Cori.
Edit: We are thrilled to report that Cori was honored with a Commendation Award for her work on this call! We've attached the image of it below. Congratulations, Cori!
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