Inside the Roller-Coaster
It has been more than ten years since I first heard that tone in my ear and answered it with “9-1-1, what is the emergency?” and I still marvel at our experience, as 9-1-1 operators and dispatchers, of the full spectrum of human emotions…in ourselves. We expect that we’re going to hear the full gamut of emotions in our callers, and to a lesser degree with the officers on the radio, but it’s almost surprising when we reflect on ourselves and witness the same sensations catapulting us to the heights of joy and excitement and then crashing us down again into the valleys and crevases of dark anger and sadness as we do our jobs “answering the call.”
In my first weeks and months on the job, my prevailing emotion was that of anxiety. I had recently left a job where I had worked for 10 years and had all the benefits that accompany working for a municipality…job security, great health insurance, retirement, paid holidays, etc…and there I was at 37 years old, switching careers again to work for another government entity with the same benefits and better pay…and having to endure another 12 months of probation in a much more severe and demading environment where liability was a daunting concept and in the forefront of my mind at every moment. In the middle of that anxiety and nervousness, there were also other emotions, of course. After six weeks of class-room training, and then in the middle of my floor-training of actually taking calls, I had an unexpected shock. I was taking calls with my trainer listening-in, and I received a non-emergency call. After I announced myself, “Phoenix Police Department, this is Scott, how can I help you?” the caller responded with “Daaaaamn!” It was my partner from my old job! The person I had worked and talked with almost every work day of the past ten years…and she recognized my voice on the phone. What a surprise! I was gone from that other world, but it was still present and very much a part of my new every-day. During the years to come, I also received calls on 9-1-1 from clients that I had dealt with at the health department…they were still out in the jungle of the streets, living nightmares of mostly their own making, and when things got bad, they only had the police to depend on in coming to rescue or assist them. So my days and nights were also touched with nostalgia at hearing the callers’ names and knowing the locations from which they were calling, still being able to see their street-corners and back-alley hovels where they stayed between their tricks and hustling to make a living. My time on the phones and radio were blended somewhat with my former occupation, in that we/I still dealt with the same people.
There is also sadness, of course, in working in public-safety communications, unutterable sadness that touches to the core, that taps deeply into that part of your emotions that transcends our relationships inside of our police “family.” Within my first six months of working here, I witnessed, or at least heard, my first “Last Call.” If you don’t know what that is, the Last Call is a rite or tradition performed by a police dispatcher during the funeral service for a fallen officer, one who died on the job, whether it was through an act of violence committed by a bad-guy, or an accident that went tragic and the officer perished somehow. In this particular instance, the officer was wrestling with a bad-guy on the side of the freeway and the bad-guy got away by running across traffic. I don’t know the exact details, but the officer gave chase and was hit by a semi and killed instantly. A citizen stopped and cleared on the officer’s radio and told our dispatcher that the officer was down. I cannot imagine the horror of being that dispatcher and having some regular person, not an officer, talking on her radio telling her that one of her officers was down. Yes, one of “her” officers. Hers or his, whatever gender the dispatcher. When we’re working in Radio, dispatching calls to the officers, the dispatchers, “we,” often feel a particular ownership of what happens on the radio. We’re supposed to know where each of our officers is at all times. We try to recognize their voices and their particular cadences of speech and what they were doing last and who was with them so that if anything happens to them, in case they call or cry out for help, we will know who they are and where to send help. They are “our” officers and we’re supposed to do everything within our power to make sure they go home at the end of their shift. Whether we’re embedded in the police “family” and live every aspect of our lives for and with all things police, or not, they’re still our officers…we want them to be safe. We’re amped-up when they’re chasing someone and we’re excited when they catch him…we cheer sometimes in the radio room when “we” finally catch the bad guy that we’ve been looking for all day…and we’re saddened beyond description when things go bad…when things “go south” and one of “our” officers dies on duty. I was one of the “new guys” when the dispatcher was preparing to do that Last Call, so the supervisor told me to come from the 9-1-1 room into the dispatch side so I could listen…so I could be baptized into my new family by participating in the sadness and grief that sometimes accompanies us doing our jobs. So I stood there and watched the dispatcher and listened as she spoke his call-sign, “Nine-thirty-four-bravo? Nine-thirty-four-bravo? I copy Nine-thirty-four-bravo is 10-7 at such-and-such address (cemetery)…he is gone but not forgotten…rest in peace, Nine-thirty-four-bravo…goodnight, Sir…KOA789.” Tears were streaming down my cheeks and those of the other dispatchers standing around with me as the officer’s dispatcher gave his Last Call. Her voice was calm and even, clearly-spoken…holding it together as she did her job…and her voice only broke slightly as she gave that final “goodnight, Sir.” She did a great job…truly…I can still see her today, all these years later. This Last Call is my first memory of this salty old dispatcher who called me “Sonny Boy” a few years later and told me that she had seen some things in her twenty-odd years of dispatching that I wouldn’t even be able to imagine. She is still here today, and while some of her war-stories have gotten a little old in the re-telling, she is a wealth of information and history and adds a particular and distinct quality to our group of dispatchers.
It’s easy to take for granted some of the people with whom we work…or to easily label them as snotty or intolerant of people who aren’t as skilled as they are, people who haven’t yet worked some of the horrible situations they have…who haven’t been baptized with the true and severe fires of working officer-involved emergencies. Sometimes their impatience and intolerance is wearing, it’s taxing to be putting out the fires that they’re causing throughout the radio room among their co-workers because of their brashness and biting remarks. But these same people can be awe-inspiring when the proverbial shit is hitting the fan and we get the opportunity to watch or listen to them work. On a particular Saturday evening, a particular April 12 of six or seven years ago, a two-man unit followed a suspicious vehicle into one of the Central Phoenix neighborhoods and ended-up in foot-pursuit of the bad guys as they bailed from what we later learned was a stolen vehicle. The officers chased the bad guys through yards and alleys and other yards and alleys and crossed streets this way and that and didn’t know where they were and suddenly one of them yelled “Nine-Nine-Nine!!!” Those numbers are not spoken by anyone in the normal courses of their days here…not in the police family…even if they’re numbers on a license plate. We say “Nine hundred and ninety nine.” When someone says “Nine-Nine-Nine” it only means that something horrible has happened and that things are going to get much worse before they get better. The officer had been shot four times with bullets entering his abdomen from under his vest and causing incredible damage to his insides before coming out or getting lodged inside. He gave his call-sign and said that he’d been shot. His partner had shot the bad guy, but they didn’t know where they were. The dispatcher broadcast the “all-call” city-wide, repeating the 9-9-9 code, and told responding officers to switch to her frequency and hold their traffic (be quiet). She then continued to clear the officers to try to find their location so she could send help directly to them. They were stuck in a backyard somewhere that was full of garbage and broken-down cars and…they couldn’t tell where they were…somewhere around 20th Street and Roosevelt. The dispatcher relayed the information to the air-unit after they cleared her, asked for a co-worker to get Fire to respond…and then scolded the patrol lieutenant for talking on the radio – “Patrol fifty-two, will you hold your traffic, we still don’t know where Five-twenty-five-mary is…!!” The presence of the dispatcher, her courage, control, single-mindedness, focusing on the task of getting help to “her” officers was incredible. She knew her job, knew how to do it, knew what needed to be done next, who was where, who needed to be somewhere else…all of it…she ruled her frequency. And you might ask how she didn’t know where the officers were when they needed her help…and that’s a good question. The officers were statused as 10-8, or available. They never told the dispatcher what they were doing. They hadn’t run the plate of the vehicle and hadn’t told their dispatcher that they were trying to pull the guy over, but he wasn’t complying. Her first indication that they were doing anything other than just driving around was when they yelled those numbers…Nine-nine-nine.
This particular incident ended relatively well. It occurred less than a mile away from a major trauma hospital, and while the officer is reported to have “bled-out” nine times during surgery, he survived and returned to work a few years later. When I mentioned the police “family” earlier and talked about how dispatchers feel a certain protectiveness of “their” officers, this particular situation was tightly wound in that “family” relationship. The injured officer was an academy class-mate of the dispatcher’s officer husband…they had picnicked together, been present for the births of children, spent holidays together…. They were family in so many senses of the word. And the dispatcher was awesome, trying to take care of “her” officers. I have often told my new dispatchers that if I die and come back as a dispatcher again, I want to be just like this one.
All officer-involved emergencies don’t end as “well” as this one did, obviously. Relief never came to some of the situations. Yes, the dispatchers and 9-1-1 operators went home at the end of the day, most of the officers went home and sat with their spouses, or partners, or parents, or children…and recounted the day’s events. They told how they heard the “all-call” and responded to help as quickly as they could, or they worked the call on the radio, broadcast for more units, responded to the air unit, started the K-9 officers, called Fire and told them to stage or come straight in to the scene…they told how they almost held it together until the scene was stable…or how they thought it was strange how they continued to work in an oddly detached sort of way until the next shift’s dispatchers and operators got there to relieve them. The dispatchers told their families how they gathered in the lunch room or conference room to talk with the crisis counselor who was called-out during the middle of the night to help them make sense of what had happened, to share what information we had or didn’t have…to listen to them cry and tell how they felt so inept or frustrated with losing such control…they couldn’t do enough to help…they couldn’t get in their own car and drive out there to do something…they were stuck behind a desk wearing a head-set as the officers were laying on the apartment lawn with bullets in their heads and hearts…two officers dead at the scene, two more wounded with non-life-threatening injuries, and one more with a broken arm as he flew through a red-light and crashed into another car as he was trying to get there in time…one of the first officers on the scene was married to one of the dispatchers on-duty and told her how he held his squad-mate as his heart beat for the last time…covered in his blood and nothing he did could help, as he had taken a shot to the head…and the mayor came down to the communications center to check on the dispatchers…his son was an officer, too, and he wanted us to know that he was thinking about us as we tried to take care of “our” officers…his son and others.
Another officer’s shooting location is directly on my way home…I pass it every day. I wasn’t at work when it happened, but I pass the memorial marker that the city has affixed to a lamp post at the location…I drove past it every day right after it happened and saw the candles and flowers and stuffed animals that people had brought in honor of the veteran officer who had been shot…over a wrong plate being on the suspect’s car…and I saw the patrol-car that sat there around the clock with its running-lights on as the officer inside sat behind tinted windows and watched the citizens passing-by…keeping vigil…remembering his squad-mate or fellow officer. My heart was and is saddened…and there is never a “right” word to say to the slain officer’s family member when I see them at work.
We tell ourselves that anything can happen at any moment on any day that we’re at work…and while nothing horrible happens on most of those days, sometimes a lot of horrible things happen all together…and there’s nothing to do but persevere…endure…grunt through it. July 27, 2007, was my first day back to work after a two week vacation…and it was just me and another supervisor in charge of the call center (our back-up call-center at that) when our computers went down…CAD was down, computer aided dispatch…and it went down during the middle of a police pursuit of a stolen vehicle that had rammed an officer’s car in his attempts to get away. That is considered an aggravated assault, crashing into a police officer’s car intentionally…so a pursuit was called by the officers…and the air unit was overhead…and CAD was down, so everyone was writing their notes by hand, entering the information on logs…writing all calls by hand and having a runner take them from the 9-1-1 room over to the Radio room…and the air unit was calling the pursuit…and the observer suddenly told us that two media helicopters that had been filming the pursuit had crashed into each other and have exploded and fallen to the ground in the middle of a park in the heart of Phoenix…. And the air unit kept following the occupied stolen vehicle westward and hell was breaking loose…and our computers were down. The dispatchers were incredible in their command presence, keeping the helicopter crash on the tactical channel that had been working the stolen vehicle, switching the pursuit to another tactical channel, closing one of the information channels and using it for traffic associated with the wreck…and…the entire city had a cell phone and needed to call us…and the computers were down…and I’d never worked a helicopter crash before, as either an operator or supervisor…so I punted…did everything that we normally do for a high-profile incident like an officer-involved shooting, notified everyone and God…and then checked the dispatchers to see that they had what they needed. Things settled down, as they do with any situation…officers responded from all over the city to help with the helicopter wreck, to work other areas that were short officers…they caught the bad-guy with the stolen vehicle…and the crashed and exploded helicopters had fallen into an unpopulated area of that central Phoenix park, so nobody else was injured or killed from the wreck…aside from the pilots and photographers. The computers came back up…our technology was serving us again…and the swing-shift operators and supervisors relieved us from our positions and our day was over…and we took deep breaths and walked out into the scalding desert afternoon, found our cars, prayed for the air-conditioning to work properly…and then sat there in disbelief at what had happened during our eight and ten hours at work that day.
Later that evening, one of our officers was shot and killed when a forgery suspect’s girlfriend distracted the officer as he was trying to cuff the bad-guy. The suspect grabbed a gun from under his shirt and shot the officer in the head…and the bad day continued into the night and dispatchers and 9-1-1 operators and police officers were thrown again into the turmoil of emotions of hate and sadness and the sense of futility and hopelessness…and….
When we’re on the 9-1-1 phones, we hear funny things sometimes…they don’t make up for the sadness, but they provide a break…they soften our hardening hearts with their ridiculousness. One guy called to tell us that everything really was ok at a certain intersection…in case anybody called to report a bunch of weird people kneeling in the dirt lot with hands raised to the sky or jumping up and down…they were just praying to their Almighty that they would be able to purchase that particular corner of land for their new church. Or people call to tell us that there are people in their attics who are spying on them…and have inserted probes into their ears and are sending them strange signals to make them do certain and particular or wonderful things. We feel the satisfying joy, sometimes, of questioning our callers and obtaining precise and detailed information that leads the officers to the certain bad guy that we described in our calls…and they take him or her or them into custody and we feel like we did something…we were part of something bigger than ourselves…we helped someone, really.
In our communications center, we receive all the 9-1-1 calls for the city. If we determine that it’s a fire or medical emergency, we click a button on our phones and the call is transferred to the fire department. Sometimes, we don’t know what we have on the phone…we have to pry the answers out of the callers. They’re either ambiguous, don’t want to say certain words for fear of being overheard by the bad guy, they don’t have a clue where they are, they just woke-up and can’t see what’s happening, but they can hear shooting and screaming and cars speeding away…and sometimes they don’t say anything…we can hear that the line is open, that someone is there, breathing or moving…but nobody is responding….
“9-1-1, what is your emergency?”
“Hello? This is 9-1-1, do you have an emergency?”
Nothing…possible movement…light rustling…someone is there so I sent TTD tones in case the person is deaf and can’t hear me but has a TTD machine so we can communicate. There’s no response to the tones…still someone is there.
“Hello? Can you hear me? You called 9-1-1, do you need the police or fire department? Do you need paramedics?”
Something is touching the phone, moving against it, not hard and not soft….
“If you can hear me, try to click on the mouthpiece of the phone…try to click twice if you can hear me.”
“So you can hear me, but you can’t talk, is that right? Click two times to say ‘yes’ and one time to say ‘no.'”
“Is there someone with you and you can’t talk because he’s there? Again, click two times to say ‘yes’ and one time to say ‘no.'”
Click…. No second click….
“Are you hurt or sick and you can’t talk? Click two times for ‘yes’ and once for ‘no,’ ok?
“Did someone hurt you and leave you there? Click two times for ‘yes’ and….”
“Are you sick?”
I entered the call, minutes ago, as a Check-Welfare hot-call…officers were responding with lights and sirens. I asked one of my co-workers to call Fire and get them rolling, too. I didn’t want to transfer the call myself, as I didn’t want to take the chance of losing the caller.
“I’ve got police and paramedics coming to you…can you still hear me?”
“Can you get to the door? Are you able to open the door?”
“Is the door locked?”
“Stay on the phone with me, ok? Don’t hang-up for anything…just keep the phone there next to you, ok?”
My heart was racing and I thought I was doing everything right. This was odd…it was strange…I had heard about this kind of call before, but this was my first one. I couldn’t imagine what was happening there and the only confidence that I could have was that the caller really did mean “yes” and “no” when she clicked accordingly. I was hoping that there was no bad guy there or nearby…I was hoping it was medical. I remembered that scene from The Fugitive when the doctor’s wife was calling 9-1-1 after the guy had bashed her head and was hoping the officers wouldn’t find something similar when they got there. My supervisor had clicked-in and was listening to me work the call at the same time she was listening to the dispatcher on the radio. She leaned in my direction and told me that the officers were there and getting a key from the office.
“Hello? Are you still there? The police are there at the apartments, ok? Can you hear me?”
I heard someone open the door, people talking, more rustling, and then someone picked-up the phone?
Hello? Is this 9-1-1?
“Yes, I’m here. Is this PD?”
Yeah, we’re inside and the paramedics are working on the lady. You can hang-up now.
And that was all…it was done, just like that. The officers and paramedics were there and I was done…. I put the phone on not-ready so I wouldn’t get another call and then leaned back and turned around in my chair and looked at my boss. She said I did a good job. Wasn’t that fun?!
As it turned-out, the woman was in anaphylactic shock and was quickly slipping toward coma. The paramedics worked their magic, she recovered very quickly, and was doing so well when the paramedics were preparing to leave that she refused to be transported to the hospital…she was that “ok.”
My very next 9-1-1 call was a man from Ahwatukee complaining about illegal parking. After working the call I just did with the woman in shock and almost dying, this bozo called 9-1-1 to report illegal parking…more emotion, a little bit of anger, exasperation, frustration…and it was all still on a recorded line so I couldn’t chew him out. I was rather short with him, told him that the parking situation wasn’t an emergency, and gave him the non-emergency number.
A few months later, I was on the night shift and just worked a shooting call where a pregnant woman was shot in the back while she stood in her front yard and told a bunch gang-bangers to quit racing up and down her street…my very next 9-1-1 call was a person complaining about loud music…. “It’s two in the morning and my neighbors won’t turn off their goddamned music!!” So they called 9-1-1…some people.
We’re frustrated sometimes, angry and sad, sitting there in disbelief at what we’re hearing…we look around the room at what we consider to be “normal” and wonder how people get themselves into the situations that they do. Our patience and impatience of being on the phones and radios bleed into our lives and we want all the details…we don’t want any details…don’t tell me what happened last week, what’s going on right now…give me the 9-1-1…what?! We go home and share some of our stories with our equally unbelieving family members…we remember the words for years…we keep the feelings tucked-away sometimes and recall them in a purging moment or afternoon when we just need to get them out of our heads or hearts again. Sometimes we write stories about them…we put to print the emotions and paint pictures that follow us through the passing years, like the events that transpired in That Call…or the moments and calls that I shared in 261 in Progress, Next to Last Epitaph…or And Rage…? These things and others have become a part of us, these memories continue to inform our lives, touch us in purposeful moments of reflection, or in the unintended flashes of images or words or circumstances that visit us uninvited when we’re going about even the most mundane or unrelated actions…like watching a movie, walking to the mailbox and hearing the loud bass from a passing car…riding our bike along the canal…or driving home after work, passing a too familiar location that takes us again to the echoes of number-nines ricocheting through the radio and out into forever…and then.
As 9-1-1 operators and dispatchers, our feelings run the gamut of possibilities, they are reflected through and beyond the spectrum of known human emotions…and then they come back to us…they take us to incredible heights and depths and throw us around corners, abruptly, slowly, sometimes crashing and sometimes easing us along the track of our experiences on the phones and radios…and we keep coming back for more…life inside the roller-coaster…one beep at a time.
“9-1-1, what’s the emergency?”