I’ve been feeling a little old lately, and it might have to do with the fact that I’ll soon hit my 28th anniversary as a 911 dispatcher.
Doesn’t seem possible, does it? I mean, I seem so young and fresh …
I’ve often joked that anyone who works for more than ten years in a dispatch center should automatically be considered certifiably insane. Since then I’ve learned that the average career length for a dispatcher is around seven years – which means my joke isn’t so funny anymore, is it?
But I didn’t start as an emergency telecommunicator (I didn’t make that term up, honest). I was working a factory job when I got the call to come in and apply for a job as a jail officer, known back then as a jailer or turnkey. I took a $1.22 an hour pay cut in order to put on a uniform and watch drunks throw up – clearly, I really hated working in the factory.
At the time our jail officers often worked alone, while up in the communications department one dispatcher worked many of the shifts. It got awfully lonely, especially when a transport came in with a load of new prisoners, or police broke up a minor consuming party. All of the sudden I was the only uniform in a sea of people waiting to be booked in, dressed down, and placed near a bathroom.
Two things about inmates surprised me: One was that some of them, once removed from temptation, became some of the most decent, and in the case of trustees hard working, people you’d ever want to meet.
The other was that a certain percentage of them were just nasty pieces of scum, and absolutely no act of kindness or second chances did a darn thing to change that. When those people got booked out (you could usually tell which was which), I’d say, “See you soon.”
“I’m never coming back here,” they’d reply.
But, with the exception of those who died or got put away in some other facility, they always did.
Eventually I got tired of being breathed on by people who never saw a doctor except when incarcerated, so I moved into dispatch. I don’t recall how long I lasted in the jail, but I figured dispatch, where I didn’t have to go face to face with people who were just misunderstood (ask them, they’ll tell you), had to be less stressful.
Stop laughing, I really thought that.
How can I explain what dispatching is like? Let’s say you want to be a performer, so you learn to juggle chain saws. But that’s not good enough for today’s sophisticated audiences, so you also learn how to balance 100 spinning plates at the same time. But that’s not getting you booked, so you learn how to throw knives at a spinning target while singing The Star Spangled Banner.
Dispatching is like that.
Not for the whole shift, of course. Anyone who’s ever worked retail is familiar with the concept of feast or famine. Say you’re at a grocery store, and shoppers start trickling in, one after another, at different times and getting different amounts of stuff.
Then they all want to check out at the same time.
Then they finish checking out, and there’s no one in the store … until people start trickling in, one after another. That’s what being an emergency dispatcher is like. Dispatch centers could save money by scheduling extra people only during the busy period – except no one ever knows then the busy periods will be. I’ve seen quiet Friday evenings (although not many of them), and I’ve seen all heck break loose at 5 a.m.
Once I was working alone in dispatch (These days we’re so much busier that one dispatcher is a laughable, terrifying concept), when, at around 5:30 in the morning, black ice started forming on pavement all over the county. You might say all the drivers crossing all the bridges in the county decided to check out at the same time. Some of them came close to checking out in the fatal sense of the word.
No warning. No chance to call in help. I went from nothing on the board to three dozen accidents in ten minutes. Another example would be when one giant fiery crash happens and you have to dispatch half a dozen different agencies to it, at the same time. It was fun. By which I mean, it wasn’t.
But at least with calls like that what you need to do is pretty clear cut. Here are some examples of the calls that make my head start throbbing:
Someone calls 911 and starts with, “This isn’t an emergency …”
It’s an emergency line, bub.
“I have a question …”
I have an answer, but you’re not going to like it. This person invariably will involve us in such a head scratcher that’ll take off pieces of my scalp.
“I had this problem back in December of 2008, and …”
We really do get calls like that. These are people who, if they were writing a book, would start out with “Chapter One: I am born.” You couldn’t get them to the point with a spear gun.
There are other examples, but I can’t give you specifics until the book comes out on the day of my retirement, December 21th, 2019. This is assuming I can gather a single sane thought by then.
It’ll be hard to autograph a book while in a straightjacket.