Very simply, KOA-789 was the call-sign, or call-letters, of the Phoenix Police Department’s radio station – very similar to what you would hear the DJs or commercial radio station announcers say over the air, or the way you would even refer to the radio station itself, like KSLX, KDKB, or KJZZ, KNIX, etc. While it may sound odd that a police department would have a radio station, it helps to understand that the FCC considers the collective of radio frequencies, or radio system, that a police, fire, or other public safety agency uses for communication purposes, to be a “station.”
When I said that KOA-789 were the call-letters, I meant that they used to be and technically no longer are. Several years ago, Phoenix Police upgraded their radio system to an 800MHz technology, no longer using the antiquated UHF radio-frequency system that is still in use by many smaller agencies across the country. The 800MHz system is digital and has many advantages over the older system. It also automatically sends a signal broadcasting its own unique digital marker, or call-letters, over the air.
The FCC has rules that require radio stations to announce the call letters and time on the hour and half-hour marks. In specific regard to Phoenix Police, and likely other police agencies, as well, when they were operating with the older radio system, dispatchers used to announce the time and radio station call-letters according to FCC regulations. It was often in conjunction with dispatching a call, during the broadcast of some other pertinent radio traffic, or when the dispatcher from one precinct’s frequency had finished giving information on another precinct’s frequency, as in – “the frequency’s clear at twenty-three-forty-six-hours, K-O-A-seven-eighty-nine.” During the late hours of the night or very early hours of the morning when the radio was quiet, meaning that no officers were clearing the dispatcher or each other, the dispatcher would simply announce the time and call-letters – “It’s zero-three-hundred-hours, K-O-A-seven-eighty-nine.”
Over the years, the call-letters somehow morphed into a symbol or a trademark of the department, so that whenever one saw or heard the letters, the meaning was well-known or understood – at least by officers and dispatchers, as they were the ones commonly using the call-letters. At some point, license plate frames were made and distributed (sold to employees) with “Phoenix KOA-789” on them, so that the vehicle owner/driver could tell other drivers, and police officers specifically, that they were part of the Phoenix Police family. Other police agencies would have their own call-letters for their radio “stations” that were in a similar form, which meant that their officers would recognize the license plate frame information and consider that the driver was a police employee. On a trip to California, I happened to see a frame on a vehicle that said “Los Angeles KOA-XXX.” I don’t remember the specific numbers that came after the KOA, but I was surprised to see that LAPD had their own license plate frames.
Again, KOA-789 used to be the call-letters of the Phoenix Police Department’s radio station. With the advent of the 800MHz technology, the dispatchers were instructed to stop broadcasting the letters with the time on the hour and half-hour marks during their shift; they were told that it was actually prohibited. That change in radio systems, however, doesn’t prevent police employees from putting the “slogan” on their cars or saying it among themselves, or even tagging the letters onto the end of a story, the recounting of a sentimental or nostalgic memory about a former employee, or even a recollection of how things were “in the good ol’ days.” The use of the letters is not likely so common among the newer officers and dispatchers, but to remove it from the veterans’ vernacular would be akin to removing it from the department’s coat of arms or family crest, for it remains a symbol of belonging, comraderie, and family among those who work for the department (or used to).
This article was written in response to several people finding their way to my blog, somehow, when checking the internet with search queries of “what does KOA-789 stand for?” or “what is KOA-789.” While some of the technical information might not be 100% accurate, it represents my understanding of the history of the call-letters from having been a police 9-1-1 operator, dispatcher, and communications supervisor with the Phoenix Police Department for over 10 years. Please feel free to submit your corrections or additions to the information…at zero-nine-hundred-hours, K-O-A -seven-eighty-nine….
In those many orbits around the sun, and the moon around ourselves, in that figment of time and space that we call months and years, and in those days of our passing, in that time that I’ve been gone from that place where I had worked and worked and wondered for other years and gone, things changed and progressed and grew and became other things that someone else had imagined. Technology and practice and practice became new and better and more precise and less invasive in a personal sense, for some, for those in the practice of this medicine and art and then. Time has changed some of the occupants, too, of the circles in which and around which the plagues are passed and given and shared and transmitted in knowing and unknowing senses all. While some advances have been made in several of the related realms, some of the old and tried and true remain and serve as beacons and exemplars of what works and what lives still in our humanity and theirs. A handshake and an eye-to-eye look of greeting and acceptance or a touch on the arm or shoulder or a shared smiling frown still connects their lives and ours as we mix and meld in our humanity and striving so. There is the unknown and the fear and the real pain of their physical pain and non-understanding and guilt and shame and glistening eyes and downcast, as they ask questions and await answers as they stare at the lines in the tile on the floor. No quivering today in that unshaven and rugged chin on that young man, little boy, who described his estrangement from his parents, their disapproval of his life and his mom’s fears for his future and health and physical living. He spoke of church bonds that are harsh and unforgiving and uncompromising and are tied harder and faster and sharper than a love for a child. He said, too, that there is a sister of mom or dad who still loves and accepts him and will always be there. He wonders at what a test result might mean, in that it changes the way even friends look at you. They don’t joke the same, can’t tease the same way…maybe like stepping on an un-dug grave, so he couldn’t share it with them either. “You are so young,” I said, “and that is both good and bad. You believe in your invincibility, still, and in your right to conquer the obstacles in front of you, but you’re not old enough to remember your friends wasting away and dying from what they contracted during the fun and love of an earlier time. Your brain tells you that the others’ memories are true, but you live in your actions as if they aren’t.” We think it can’t happen to us, he said, unconsciously squirming at the sensation of what was leaking out of his front and back-sides as he has waited so long to come in for a simpler malady. He was quick to respond to my call that he’d been exposed and needed treatment. Whatever he had scheduled was suddenly less important because he now knew and understood that what he had been feeling for weeks and weeks was real and could be ignored no longer. And so he was there…and so was I.
No radio was in the background and I had no concern for a status-list. I couldn’t feel a headset cord at my side and there were no black-banded badges or shields on posters on the wall reminding me that it wasn’t how they died that made them heroes, it was how they lived. My heart wasn’t beating with an anxious pulse waiting and waiting for someone to clear that it was Code-4, it was beating in sympathy and empathy for the distraught young man who sat in front of me who was wondering at test results and the fact that his father hadn’t spoken to him in over three years because of who he loved, yes, both the father and the son, the “he” in their each and solitary selves…and the men they loved.
Many things have remained the same…since I’ve been gone.
Several years ago, a friend asked me to write something about my thoughts and feelings pertaining to the transition from employee to supervisor within our workplace, from 9-1-1 operator and dispatcher to Radio Supervisor. When contemplating the paper, I thought I would discuss the relationships with my immediate co-workers, the relationships with peer supervisors from other shifts, the relationship with my supervisor, the aspects of the performance of my job that my supervisor evaluated, the relationships that I had with my employees and the employees of other supervisors, both on my shift and other shifts, and related to and intertwined with all of the above, the political nature of written communication, things said and/or not said, actual and implied or perceived intent, and the ever-present need to actually consider and weigh one’s reaction to any other word, intent, omission, look, possibility, idea, etc..
After discussing the changes in relationships and interactions with all of the people in the workplace, and when considering those changes, there was also the immediately personal aspect to look at – my evaluation of myself inside myself, the changes in my thought processes that included moving from a solitary person to one of community and all that it entailed, i.e., what I lost and gained, etc. And then more – my thoughts of the bureau, the department, the officers, the citizens; my responsibilities to my co-workers, my employees, my boss, the department, the citizens; how my perspective of liability had changed or remained the same; my dedication to the job; my thoughts of other people’s dedication to the job; my sense of belonging and not belonging; it was just a job, a means to a nice paycheck that provided for my family and the commitment I had to making sure I deserved what the city gave me for compensation; and then my occasional thoughts of demoting, or other thoughts of trying for another promotion where I would supervise my then co-worker supervisors.
All of that processing of my transition within that particular workplace got my mind going in similar yet unassociated areas and caused me to wonder about the different and many transitions that one undergoes in a lifetime – which I then applied to myself and the many aspects and experiences of my own existence that have led me from one place to another, both literally and figuratively. My mind went in directions ranging from being an innocent in every sense of the word and passing into and through the stages of gaining knowledge that removed the innocence and replaced it with experiences that changed me forever, even if only in the slightest ways. My thoughts wandered, then and now – if I’m going to have this current and up-to-date, down the trails of my childhood turning into adolescence and adulthood; the paths that led me from the Air Force to the health department, from the health department to the police department, and from there to my present workplace in another health department in an altogether different state and locale; from carelessness to concern, or selfishness to awareness; the journey from being a solitary person, as I mentioned earlier, to one who out of necessity or yearning became one of community with a participatory audience, be it large or small; the change from being a young father with little children to being an older father with young and older children; from being a Believer to being a non-believer or disbeliever…and…. So I wondered at change and transition.
And then a friend of mine sent me a link to another article about a man who tossed caution to the wind and left his steady and secure job that paid well, but wasn’t fulfilling, and bought a boat and started a charter business and sailing school…and changed his life. He left the security for something he loved, something that spoke to or moved his “soul” or the core of his being. And I thought of transitions again and still. I thought of how I have done something similar to the guy who “quit” his former job and bought a boat so he could pursue his dreams, however unsteady they might have been. I thought of pursuing a simpler life, one less complicated, without and within, one that was rewarding and fulfilling and wrought with a different and compelling potential that didn’t exist in another place, for me and mine, anyway. I thought of how making that change will cause other transitions to occur within me as so many transitions and changes were occurring outwardly in my life.
Yes, I’ve only been there for a few weeks, but I actually look forward to going to work in the morning. I also look forward to waking and seeing that big beautiful mountain down at the end of my street, knowing that at the end of my work week, or even some afternoon after work, I will be out there driving or hiking among its hills and valleys, listening to its streams trickling or rumbling over its rocks, and hearing its scolding squirrels and singing birds touching the otherwise quiet and clean forest air. No…the monetary rewards won’t be there at work; I’m not going to be rich or even “well-to-do” after working there…but then I don’t have dreams of making millions. I’m looking for peace that lives within.
So the other day, when I was in the turn-lane to merge into the lane of traffic that was going to take me out and into Mill Creek Canyon, I suddenly saw and heard, racing toward me, three police cars in a line with their lights and sirens going full blast, “Code-3,” with a fourth one coming a minute or so later, flying so fast that they shook my truck in their passing. In my mind, and in my memory that has formed over the past eleven years, that many cops heading in the same direction, so close together, with lights and sirens screaming and blaring, could only mean one thing…someone got shot…some police officer got shot and the others were driving there as quickly as they could so they could render aid and catch the bad-guy. My heart nearly jumped out of my chest.
The view of the big beautiful mountain in front of me was suddenly absent as my former life and concerns came crashing and screaming into my very real and present and different life. I almost went back to my apartment to await the news flash on the television. But, I didn’t. I did, however, ask the mountain “Why?” and then sat there for another half-minute or so before venturing out into the traffic on the road that would take me away from my immediate concern and anxiety and out into the green embrace of that lush and welcoming “other world” that exists a few miles down the road from the everyday. I did watch the news that night, which I normally don’t do…and…regarding all the cops in a line with their lights and sirens and my imagined tragedy that struck or befell those brothers in blue…nothing. It was a “Big Fat Numba-Three.”
And today, with the “new employee” orientation that touched on emergency preparedness and the talk of 800MHz radios and interoperability and incident command and chain-of-command and what if our cell-phones won’t work and the radio towers are down and they’ve got two new fancy trucks with mobile antennas for the radios and stored rations and a cache of this and a cache of that and a 72-hour kit and we need to get help to those in need and 9-1-1 will be out of business and so will we and…and…what does all of this have to do with gonorrhea?
So…I am still somewhere in-between the past and the present, the “used-to-be” and the “is.”
It’s not that sacred December season, but I could not help but make the connection with all the mayhem that is and has befallen our city in the last evening and early morning hours. I realize this is another somber and distressing post, but I think my cup is full and the meniscus of sadness is about to overflow, as its already feeble boundary or edge of fragile instability sways and quakes in the beating of my heart and tightness in my throat.
I sat there with my headset on and waited for what might come through the phone and happened to look up at the clock and noticed that it was 9:06 a.m. on our Sunday morning at work. In our police radio talk, in our city anyway, “9-0-6” means that we are to send help quickly. When we hear it on the radio, we know someone is either getting their ass kicked or they are about to. It’s not as bad as “9-9-9,” but it means that there is serious trouble and the officer needs help right now, this instant, this moment, immediately…a second ago, please. It’s appropriate now, I think. We need help. Or maybe it’s just me.
I could not help but be affected by my dispatcher’s quivering chin as she fought back the tears after working a suicide call that involved an officer from a neighboring city. “It’s so sad,” this little one said, as she voiced her distress and concern at what might have been so bad in the guy’s life that he wanted to end it all as he did. He had left a note at his computer on the desk in his office, giving his wife very specific instructions as to what she should do. He told her to call 9-1-1 and then take their daughter out front to wait for the police. She called us and said that she found the note and was scared to search the house for him or to go into the garage. She didn’t want to find his body. My dispatcher entered the responding officers’ radio traffic into the call, typing a narrative of what the on-scene officers said, noting the officers’ identifying call-sign, and then what they said. The Air Unit was overhead and did a search of the property after patrol units had arrived and checked the inside of the house. The sergeant said to keep the wife and child out front and to block off the road from passing traffic. The Air Unit’s observer then told the officers standing with the wife to turn-down their radios so she wouldn’t hear what he had to say. He then told the dispatcher and the other listening units, and me, that the officer was sitting on the swing in the northeast corner of his back yard. He said that it looked like a gun lying on the ground by the man’s left foot and it appeared that he had shot himself. The observer said that the guy wasn’t moving and then told us to stand-by; he was going to get lower and check to make sure. A couple seconds later, the Air Unit observer told us that the man was definitely shot. The patrol supervisor told the units to secure the dog in the backyard, and then to secure the handgun and to roll Fire. We don’t leave officers dead in their backyards for hours while we investigate what happened. Roll Fire – get the guy to a hospital, away from the house, from the family, from the swing-set in the backyard.
I wonder what that means, the symbolism in the man taking his life on his six year-old daughter’s swing-set in her backyard? Does it mean anything or nothing? The possibilities of freighted meanings are too much to contemplate.
My dispatcher’s eyes were sad and her voice was calm as she said thank-you as I got her a relief to sit there as she went down the hall for a few minutes after she finished the call. She was back on the radio then, half an hour or so later, and was giving the details of another hot call she was working with a hit-and-run accident victim who was chasing or following the suspect vehicle as it left the scene. She’s ok. She handled everything fine. She copied and repeated what the officers told her and she got it all typed into the call.
And so we go on. “9-1-1, Where is the emergency?”
This was only the second “serious” call of the morning. An hour earlier someone called to tell us that there was a dead transient in our city’s downtown “Heritage Square.” Another hour or so later, a son called to report that he found his 70 year-old father cold and blue in his bed on the west side of town. Another couple hours later, an off-duty fire-fighter and paramedic called to tell us that he found a deceased transient lying against the back wall of a dollar-store on the city’s south side. And almost finally, just before the end of shift, a young man called to tell us that he was hiking at one of the city’s mountain parks and found what appeared to be a 55 year-old man who had been shot in the chest…just laying there in the middle of the hiking path. Officers responded quickly with their lights and sirens and did, indeed, find the man lying there…and with a gun nearby. As I was about to step off the pod at the very end of my work-day, I noticed a message on my computer’s screen notifying me of another injured-person call…a two year-old was found floating in the family’s pool. The message had been there for a minute or two, so by the time I looked at it, the operator had added a couple more lines to the call. The last line said that the baby was awake and responsive…crying. “Code-4, clear it.”
And I’m 10-7, goodnight.
No TV tonight…no cop-shows…no news…and hopefully, no dreams about work….
On a certain Sunday morning at eleven o’clock, Tracy G. called the police department and asked for officers to meet her at a certain location so they could review a restraining-order that had been served to her. Tracy was on her way to her husband’s funeral with her three small children. The day after her husband died, two police officers had served her with the restraining-order that had been obtained by her dead husband’s mother…her mother-in-law. Tracy told the operator that her husband’s funeral was supposed to start in half an hour and she wanted an officer to read the order to make sure that she was allowed to be there. She said that the last thing she wanted was for her children to see her get arrested and taken to jail while she was with them at their father’s funeral…the day was going to be hard enough as it was.
Tracy told the operator that she called her precinct yesterday and was told by one of the patrol sergeants that there shouldn’t be a problem. He told her to make sure she didn’t interact with or confront the other woman, “don’t cause any problems…don’t commit any crimes while you’re at the funeral…and there shouldn’t be a problem…but call for an officer to check the order just to be safe.” The operator asked Tracy several more questions to make sure the officers could find her at the location where she said she would wait. He asked for her full name, her birth date, phone number, vehicle description, and the name of the business whose parking lot she would be waiting in on the south-east corner of a given intersection. “How long will it take?” she asked. “I’m not sure,” the operator told her, “but I’ve entered it as a priority call, so hopefully it won’t take too long.”
Someone in dispatch asked a supervisor about the call because it was unusual in nature. They’re used to processing priority calls to serve the restraining orders, but it was strange to process one as a priority to just have the orders “reviewed.” As the supervisor came over to the operator and asked him about the call, another dispatcher/operator overheard the conversation and offered that she had coincidentally spoken with both Tracy and her dead husband’s mother yesterday. She had directed Tracy to the precinct to speak with the sergeant…and had later listened to her dead husband’s mother rant about how she just knew that her son’s wife was going to show-up at the funeral and cause problems. The witch’s voice still echoed in her ears, that other dispatcher/operator said, as she couldn’t imagine being caught-up in such a situation where the grieving family members couldn’t even gather together peaceably to remember a loved-one who had just passed.
On a bright almost-springtime morning, Tracy G. was taking her three little kids to their dad’s funeral…and she was hoping she wouldn’t get arrested for doing so…in a family divided…for whatever reason.
I had stood beneath the streetlamp and watched the yellow glow bounce from the crystal frost on the roof of my truck like the moonlight on a tessellating sea…and as I moved my eyes, the painted ice caught the light and reflected back to me a million sparkling stars…ones that would later melt from the truck’s roof and flow down my back window like a springtime rain. As I pondered the frost and my breath’s vapor in the wintry air, I noted the quiet of the pre-dawn Christmas morning and wondered what the day would hold for me and the call-takers and dispatchers at work. I was off on Christmas Eve, but yesterday, Christmas, Friday, was the Monday of my work week…so I was moving in that direction…but slowly…I still had to stand there for a minute in my shirtsleeves…relishing the cold…blowing more vapor clouds into the dark sky of my morning and watching the crystal moonlight yellow streetlight dancing on the rooftop frosted sea of my truck…before deciding to go back into the house for my jacket and then heading downtown to work.
The ride to work was uneventful, as were the first several hours in the call-center. After we had determined that all the dispatch positions were covered and the call-takers were all nestled down at their consoles, waiting for calls of Santa Claus committing armed robberies and home invasions, three of the staff went about preparing the much longed-for Christmas morning potluck. Calls came-in and were handled in their routine fashion as our coworkers scrambled eggs, fried bacon and sausage, warmed-up the French-toast ‘casserole,’ arranged and stirred the ingredients in a crock-pot for Joy’s highly esteemed dip, and scavenged in the shift manager’s office for paper plates, cups, and other sundries. The other home-prepared foods were laid-out for us and an hour or so later, the charge was given to commence in the feasting. A couple people were allowed off the phones at a time to prepare their plates and participate in the away-from-home, 9-1-1 Christmas breakfast. The operators and supervisors assigned to first-shift (daytime hours) had to have the seniority to bid into positions on days, so they have been around long enough to know what to expect, or what can and usually does happen on Christmas and other holidays. Emergency services, especially 9-1-1 call-centers, get no breaks. They operate 24 hours a day every single day of the year…Christmas, Easter, New Years, Halloween, Hanukah, The Fourth of July…all of them…when you need us we’re there.
So we answered the phones between bites of eggs and pancakes and sent police officers to domestic violence and fight calls after putting-down our cups of orange juice…ornamented Christmas trees with lights and presents adorned our call-center, and many of our normally uniform-clad operators and dispatchers were in their holiday-finest clothes and felt really damn nice about it. People were happier, cheery, and enjoying their jobs more because they were released from the standard black shirts and pants and boots and thick leather belts…they were moms and dads and brothers and sisters and sons and daughters answering the calls of our citizens on this Christmas morning.
Amazingly, there were no armed robberies yesterday…no hot-calls for thefts of carloads of presents…only one stolen-bicycle call…and a nice collection of domestic violence calls, both physical and verbal, over some damn thing or another…and too many boyfriends were the perpetrators…and too many kids witnessed their separated families coming together for the required child-exchange…and too many dads’ new wives had to call us when the children reported what their drunk mom and her boyfriend had done to them on this Christmas morning. We had a bunch of minor thefts…mostly multiple 18-packs of Budlight or individual 40’s of some other brand…someone stole a jug of milk from a Circle K convenience store…someone else stole some kind or other kind of Christmas morning candy…and some modern Jean Valjean stole a loaf of bread…and my co-worker supervisor drove around yesterday morning…to four different convenience stores looking for dish-soap to be used in our post-breakfast clean-up at 9-1-1…he returned empty-handed…not as the victorious suspect of a soap-run who made a ‘clean get-away’ from the nearby corner-store.
Death visited us only twice during our shift yesterday…one old-guy passed-away in his extended-care facility and one not-so-old guy passed away in the lobby of the local alcohol recovery center, on Christmas morn’. We sent police to shoo-away trespassers who were begging/panhandling for money…to accidents involving people who were rushing to their masses or other worship services for the new-born savior…and to search for an 83yo man who wandered away from his elder-care facility…and he’s still missing today…at the end of today, a day later…he’s still missing.
We sat in our chairs at our consoles and watched the eternal scroll or marathon of A Christmas Story on TBS, and while I couldn’t hear any of the lines with all of our televisions on mute, I think I may have seen every scene four or five times yesterday morning…the kid being rushed upstairs after hurting his eye with his new air-rifle…the same kid rushing upstairs to put-on some damn bunny outfit…the sexist father with his new lamp of a burlesque dancer’s leg as his wife blushed and covered her face with her hair in the living room window as the dad stood on the sidewalk across the street with the other neighborhood men as the dad motioned to the mom to move the lamp this way and that to center it in the window…you know what I mean.
And…a friend of mine sat in his wife’s hospital room on Christmas Eve, waiting for her to wake up after having surgery to fix a botched-up surgery that she had a couple months ago…thoughts of this friend and his wife swirled in my mind as I answered my phones and watched the operators fill their plates and laugh at their stories with their pretty Christmas shirts and hairdos on…. This friend of mine, Jason, also has a blog (listed in the blog-roll in the side-bar to the right of this article) and he shared his reflections on this Christmas morning. Jason mentioned that a few weeks ago another coworker suggested that he write something on the ‘real’ meaning of Christmas…and he thought about it and then wrote a posting on the Twelve Days of Christmas: 9-1-1 Style…Jason is rather witty, so it’s a fun read. After he went home yesterday morning from being with his wife in the hospital, Jason wrote another blog…he had his opportunity to reflect on what might be the ‘real’ meaning of Christmas. He was touched by his love for his wife, his esteem for his co-worker who left her kids on Christmas Eve to come to work for him so he could be at the hospital with his wife…he thought about his other friends who had sent him text messages encouraging him, uplifting his spirits…and he thought of his friend from across the country who sent flowers to his wife in the hospital…even though he had never met her. I saw Jason this morning at work…with his tired and gentle eyes…hurting, thoughtful, grateful…and ready to go home. He captured the essence of Christmas in his blog…it was pure…a challenge and a reminder…for all of us. A reminder for all of us that life happens…to all of us…and we should be thankful for what we have, the people in our lives, our friends…those trusted ones who love us through thick and thin…as we answer the phones ‘9-1-1, where is your emergency?’
We did that yesterday, all day, we answered the 9-1-1 phones…sometimes it was little stuff and sometimes it was real…the substance of 9-1-1…when life happens. You might have seen some of it on the news today…a five year-old girl was kidnapped by a stranger as she and her sisters were playing in the common area of their apartment complex…just snatched her and ran…crashed into another vehicle as he was leaving…and was spotted about seven hours later by one of our canine-officers…(the little one was recovered and returned to her family…you can find the rest of it in the news)… on Christmas Day….
And it was Christmas Morning and Christmas Day in our 9-1-1 call-center yesterday…happiness was there amid the memories of lost friends and coworkers…a card was still on our supervisors’ desk for everyone to sign for the highway patrol officer that was killed last week…many of us are reading books with our places saved by bookmarks that were made in memory of our friend Pazzie who passed away just over a week ago…and as we watch the clock and answer our calls and dispatch our officers and wait for our shift to be over, we wonder at the Christmas mornings that were shared by that officer’s and Pazzie’s families yesterday….
And, so this was Christmas….
This Sunday morning, today, a simple morning, I was just sitting there reading something on the computer or studying the board to make the proper chess move and a friend walked in and gave me a Bavarian crème donut…and the smell was rich and beyond my morning grasp of words…rich sugary and warm with chocolate icing and then…wrapped in waxed paper and held with simple paper towels from the work kitchen dispenser…and it was so simple…so real…an emotion and a donut…if there had only been freshly perked coffee and a crisp wind blowing through the door and scattered yellow and orange and gold leaves lying about…but our winter spring is here and there was nothing to be had as such…eighty or so degrees on a middle-ish November day and our desert sun shone bright and fair…phones rang and people laughed and officers went running to their hot calls and chasing people who bailed-out of stolen vehicles and we heard their emotion and shortness of breath and heard the other people in the background as other officers and people were there to watch and help and one was at gun-point and hold your traffic and the radio was quiet…. And they were only seconds not minutes that passed and it was code-four, one in custody and the room was loud again as they tossed the Sunday paper to each other to search the ads and watch cartoons and it was Sponge-Bob and his friends and someone changed the channel quickly past the man in the robe beseeching someone and others to look to the highest for redemption and the news replaced him and it was boring too, so they turned it to Sports Center or some other random thing and they dispatched their trespassing calls, got officers going for the suicide and later told me about the five year-old in a wheel-chair that had been missing for over an hour…his 15 year-old sister left him out front talking with a friend and came back an hour later to find him gone and nobody knew where he was and called 9-1-1…what is your emergency…and popcorn was popped and yogurt eaten as people came and went and an American officer with a Baltic name and accent asked for an ear-piece for his radio and there’s none to be had today and so…and I met with the two remaining trainees and congratulated them on their successes and wished them more as they left my charge and passed-along to the next phase…they work almost alone now but still need a guide and a listener as they ask about emergencies and say with somber voices “9-1-1, where is the emergency?” They’re young and new and liking their jobs and want to help and have open and eager minds and they can see the seriousness in our eyes and know our voices are confident as they are still trying theirs on for size and it’s getting easier and thank you and I’ll try to wake when the alarm goes off from now on and no I don’t want to be fired…and can I stay late to make-up the missed time…the morning and afternoon passed and it was one-something and then three and we left the fortress-like building and entered our cars and began our journeys home or wherever our journeys would go and we became our citizen selves and then…the cat won’t eat her food because it’s a day old and she wants a new can and the kids are over and having fun on the trampoline and I don’t know if I want Taco Bell again…seems like common fare…common like not unusual, not like ‘common.’ The day is now passed and past and the evening is upon us and our teams won and lost and we had a little success with the right kind of DVD thingamabob and tomorrow is going to be busy again and I’d love some Bailey’s thank you…and that donut was so sweet this morning…the outer cake was slightly crisp and soft and I could smell the sugar and crème and chocolate and had to lick the last bit off my fingers as it was too good to just wipe off and throw away…and thank you my friend…for a great way to start a Sunday at work.
We don’t know how it happens, most of us, but when the buttons are depressed, it doesn’t matter. All we know is that help is supposed to arrive on the other end of the line. What is amazing, is that it does. No, I haven’t yet witnessed the serious misplay of signals and heard the agonizing death or continued battering that was yearning for my help, but in time I know it may happen. A nearly perpetual un-ease as the tone sounds in my ear; an equally perpetual wondering if this is going to be the one that may change my life forever. It can change things like that, I know it. I don’t want to be on the receiving end of that disaster, but it must come, for life knows no way of stopping the things that have been set in motion. No amount of prayer or forethought is going to prevent the inevitability in life. It just happens. Frantic voices and then ones of grogged sleep and substance induced stupors, lucid memories of the things that used to be there and the distressed sighs of the aged ones who just can’t remember. Were they going to come this Tuesday or next Tuesday? Why haven’t they shown up yet? They were only coming from across town and it seems they should have been here hours ago and I lost my cell phone and need a report number for the insurance and the man next door refuses to turn down his stereo and my babies are trying to sleep and I just got done seeing patients until three this morning and I would so like to get some sleep before I have to start the day again and don’t you know that damned dog just won’t shut up and the man just kept hitting her and she was crying, screaming for help and I had to call and now I’m taking my babies downstairs to my daddy’s apartment so they won’t be upstairs where all of that stuff is happening and the one Indian guy was grabbing the lady around the throat and smashing her head into the lamp post and I didn’t know what else to do and you’ve got to send help quick…. And so we do our best to get the numbers in the right places and depress the right keys so that help can be sent with the speed of an electronic beep to rescue the perishing. God rest ye, merry gentlemen.
“You don’t pray before you send your kids out there into the world? How can you know that they’re going to be safe?” You don’t know, I can’t know, and neither can you. Shall I pray to Peter Pan? Will Prince Charming rescue me like the risen savior? Isn’t it all the same thing? Who can know? How can you ask that of someone so believing of the stories they’ve heard? How can you dare to ask such a thing of someone like that? I don’t ask it, I just wonder it.
I left behind friends and security to gain trepidation and a few dollars more an hour and the prospect of earning even more as time proceeds onward. Probation for a year and who knows what’s going to happen in that year. I keep telling myself to relax. Just relax and answer the phone. Almost one hundred and sixty times today I just answered the phone and tried to just answer questions or just send help on the way.
“That trespass call has been holding for four minutes already. You need to broadcast it even if you don’t have any available units.”
Available units casting on your broad ass…blah, blah, blah….
“I know…I was getting ready to do that. I was just making sure the status-list reflected five-fifteen-bravo’s accurate location.”
“That’s fine, but you need to broadcast the call…didn’t Andrea tell you that you had to do that within five minutes of receiving all priority-two calls?”
No shit! Didn’t Andrea tell you….
“Of course she told me that. I’m in my ninth week of training. That’s something we covered in the first two days…and if you’d notice, I’ve been doing other things in the four minutes since I received that call.”
“I know you were…but you need to broadcast the call, too.”
Why’d she have to go on vacation now, when we’re so close to the end? And who the hell does Rachel think she is telling me all this crap?
He pushed the pedal with his gray and blue striped Adidas and said, “Any unit for a four-eighteen-tom at one-thousand-one-north-sixteenth-street?”
“Five-twenty-three-david, ten-four. Our complainant, Tom, inside the Circle K, says there’s a white-male in a blue-denim shirt and blue jeans carrying a black back-pack who’s been bothering the customers by asking them for money and he’d like him removed from the property…the subject is about five ten, a hundred sixty pounds and has short black hair and is acting very three-ninety…at thirteen-fourteen hours, is there a unit for back-up?”
Are you happy now? Not only did I broadcast it, but I also got someone to go out on it….
“That was fine…but you didn’t give the frequency call-sign after you said the time.”
Why don’t you just sit there on the other side of the console and mind your own goddamned business? I don’t have to say the call-sign every time I say the time, you friggin’ bitch….
“I have the understanding that we need to say the call-sign when we’re close to the hour…either right before or right after the hour.”
“Well…technically, that’s right….but I like to say it whenever I say the time…it sounds more professional that way.”
R i i i i g h t…like you’d know professional if it walked up to you and pulled the hair out of that mole on your chin…and while you’re at it, why don’t you put away the Soap Opera Digest you’re looking at, Dimwit…you know you’re not supposed to be reading anything while you’re training someone….
The older, heavy-set woman pushed herself back from the console and reached into her blue Wal-Mart bag and got out a package of Planters honey-roasted peanuts and started to eat them.
“Did you notify the supervisor that you have four priority-three calls that have been holding for more than an hour?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact, I did.”
“And did you annotate the calls stating that you notified the radio-supervisor that they were holding for so long?”
Yes I did…and if you’d lick the salt off your fingers and click on your little mouse to look at the call, you’d see that I already did that….
“Yes, I did.”
“Do you remember how long Andrea said she was going to be gone?”
Yeah…too friggin’ long if I’m gonna have to sit with your ass every day….
“Your mom is dead!”
Yes, I had heard her; I just couldn’t believe that she was saying those words to me.
“I said your mom is dead.”
In a flash, or less than a flash, I wondered how this woman could know that my mom was dead. My co-worker, whose name I still do not know, was standing across from my work-station, stretching as far away from her own station as her head-set cord would allow her to reach. Her eyes were wide open and she had a pale, freckled face and curly, long, brown hair, the images of which have embedded themselves forever in my mind. They are as vivid as if this happened yesterday, and not six months ago.
How could she know that my mom was dead? Why was this woman, this fellow call-taker, telling me that my mom was dead? Why hadn’t my supervisor taken me into one of the offices and told me, gently, that my mom was gone? Why? Yes, my mom was sick. She had a mitral-valve prolapse that was slowly worsening, and if she didn’t have an operation pretty soon, the valve was going to give out completely and she would die. The heart would lose its compression and not be able to pump the blood through her body. It would still beat, but the blood wouldn’t go anywhere. So, knowing that my mom’s surgery was scheduled for the next week, and that she was doing OK the last time I had spoken with her, I couldn’t grasp the reality of what this lady was telling me – that my mom was dead.
I stood up from my terminal after telling my own caller to hold-on a second.
“What…what did you say?”
“Your mom is dead. You know…from your call.”
Oh…not my mom…the one from my call. The call I had taken 15 minutes ago. The one that I had already tried to place in the back of my mind so I could move along and take whatever other calls were going to interject themselves into my life, one beep at a time.
One beep at a time. We never know what is going to be happening on the other side of the phone when we hear the beep and answer it with “9-1-1, What is your emergency?” The callers may be misusing the emergency phone system and want to know how to get from one side of the city to the other; they may want to talk to an officer about their Elvis on black-velvet painting, “You know, the one I reported as stolen last year,” that they found this afternoon at a garage sale; or it may be serious…like the one I had several minutes earlier.
A near-frantic woman’s voice answered my question by saying that the two neighbor girls just banged on her door and told her that they had just escaped from the bathroom in their apartment where they had been locked-in since about 7:30 that morning. In the background, the girls were talking very fast, whimpering, crying, rambling…. “He broke through the door and pointed his gun at us and shoved us into the bathroom. He had some cord and tape and wrapped us up real tight and then ran into the other room where he started yelling at our mom.” The voices were excited, scared, and it seemed that they were almost unbelieving of what their own eyes had witnessed those many hours before, and were now reliving, as they told their neighbor what they thought they remembered seeing.
The lady went on…“The mom’s boyfriend then went into her bedroom and started throwing her around. The girls said they could see him tying her to the bed and then he started choking her. When they came to my door they said they didn’t know where their mom was…they think the guy may have taken her somewhere…or that she may be dead…and you’ve got to send someone over here quick!”
My mind was racing and trying to get it all down right and to remember to hit the correct keys and to ask the right questions and to code it properly and my mind was getting stuck on what to call this because this was the first call that I have ever had like this and I’m scared and I know that if I don’t do it right all kinds of things can happen and I’m still on probation and what if they pull the tape and review it and…. I managed to get everything done and then I hit the transmit button and the ‘Hot-Radio’ button and told the lady to hang on a second while I got the officers going.
“Radio,” she answered. “Radio, this is for Chase North. Incident Number 3694. We have a possible kidnapping or murder or something…at such and such an address at the San Carlos Bay Apartments in Number 3122…. The little girls think their mom’s boyfriend may have abducted her and the last time they saw her this morning, the man was choking her…and they just got out of the bathroom.”
“Ma’am, we’ve got officers started…help is on the way. Can you ask the girls what the man’s name is? Do they know where he might have taken their mom? Do they remember what he was wearing? Have they seen the kind of vehicle that he drives? Can you ask the girls….”
…those little girls, the ones right there beside you, the little girls who saw their mom strangled to death…can you ask them….
I was gone. I was lost. There was nobody else in the call-center. The other operators had disappeared like so much dust and left me there, alone at my console. There was no laughter; there was no sound from the ring-down lines from Fire or DPS. The supervisor’s station to my left had vanished into the misty haze of my periphery and the fax and computer printers were mute. The large bank of windows in front of me might as well have had bricks mortared into their frames, for I saw none of their light. Someone must have put black canvas over the several sky-lights…silenced the other 25 phones, and…taken it all away…there was nothing in the world but the screen in front of me with its lines and the words that I was feeding it…and my fingers couldn’t type fast enough. My mind couldn’t think fast enough. My ears couldn’t stop hearing the little sobs on the other end of the phone. The lady was brave for them. Her strained voice rose and fell. I could hear the words cracking as she forced herself to repeat my questions to them. My own throat was tight with the need to cry, and I could almost see their tears as they were glistening down their cheeks. I could feel the girls’ shaking bodies in my own. My face was burning; adrenaline was flying through my veins; my heart was pounding in my chest; there were four heartbeats echoing in my temples as the lady and girls huddled there around the phone and shared their horrible sadness…asking me to help them.
Somehow…I got the call to Radio within 50 seconds of the tone sounding in my ear…the dispatchers had it over the air within another 15 seconds and the officers arrived in less than another two minutes…and then I heard them at the door, and the lady hung-up…and I don’t know what else….
My arm felt like lead as I reached up to press the ‘Not Ready’ button that would prevent another call from coming through to my phone. I guess that motion was like releasing a spring that held the shade down over my eyes, for suddenly, there was light in the room, the other operators were talking, and I could hear them tapping out the words that would send help to another caller in another part of the city. The supervisors were moving about their station, leaning over now and again to listen to the Chase-dispatchers who had taken my call…and the other calls. The bricks were gone from the windows, the canvas was removed from the sky-lights, and the other familiar sounds began, once again, to move in and out of my awareness. I leaned back in my chair and stared blankly at the air in front of me. My burning, tear-filled eyes didn’t move as other people glanced in my direction; my chest slowed from its heaving while my left index-finger twitched with an abnormal pulsation.
I looked at the phone and saw that the ‘Calls Holding’ light was blinking and knew that I had to get back to work. Someone else was calling for help, or for whatever. Another reach of my arm and the “Not Ready” button was released. And the tone beeped in my ear again…and again.
I don’t know how many calls I had taken after that one call, but the minutes passed, and before I could take the time to look at the call-history to see what the officers had found at the girls’ apartment, that co-worker of mine stood up and said “Your mom is dead!” I suppose my own mental trauma, or whatever one would choose to call it, of having taken that call, must have caused me to separate from my surroundings, so that when she said those words, I didn’t think about what I had just gone through, but instead thought of my own mom. I can’t sum-up the psychological processes that were working at those moments, but what I do know is that, when my co-worker said my mom was dead, that is exactly what I thought she was saying – that my mom was dead.
But she wasn’t, and isn’t…but those little girls’ mom was, and is…and that tone still beeps in my ear.