“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.
***This is a Favorite Re-post from October, 2009.
Reading Steinbeck makes me long for the days when I worked with the health department, makes me long for the time when I used to be out and among the people, touching their lives, sometimes touching their hands or bodies in ways that let me know that they and I were alive in a human sense that also touched me in my deepest heart.
As I write this, tears are coming to my eyes and my throat is getting tight at remembering that life, that previous life when my days were filled with more than the talk of a police radio and the answering of 9-1-1 phone calls, when I could drive about the city where I lived, my city and county where the people were mine and I was theirs and charged with doing something for them. I could see and feel them, could smell their smells and walk in the dust of their roads and unkempt back and front yards.
I long for the smell of a hot palm tree as it is baking in the August sun with the pigeons and other birds shitting down on those people and me and my car, where I could walk among the duck shit at Encanto Park when I was taking a break from my many field visits and rest in the shade or watch the white middle-class moms taking their three and four year-olds decked-out in Oshkosh-by-gosh jumpers and short-sets to play in the sand entrenched playground while watching the transients wander between the bathrooms and pay phones, watching who might be watching them and not.
I would sit in my car and watch the people who came to the park on their lunch breaks, wondering at who they were speaking to on their cell-phones, or wonder at what they were reading or writing as they sat at the picnic tables and looked up every now and then as the swarm of pigeons took wing and brought up the dust and dirt from their wings and the ground in their leaving.
I long for the days when I would walk down 12th Avenue and Buckeye and feel the stares on me as the locals wondered what they hell I was doing in their neighborhood. Some would recognize my white car and white self parked along the curb and come out to talk with me, while many others stood inside at their windows waiting for me to leave.
I can see the area still as it used to exist, with Dixon’s Club on the south east corner of 13th Avenue and Buckeye, old gray and purplish stuccoed building with the one scraggly Palo-Verde tree there on the corner with the dirt parking lot and old wooden door jamb that had seen many fights and raids and strange white cops darken its doorway, and then across the street on Buckeye proper at 12-something west, the Social Club and its parking lot on the east side of the building where I got some blood on my hand after drawing someone at the trunk of my car, with my little black fanny-pack of a blood kit, elastic band to tie off their arm, the tubes and needles and alcohol wipes for cleaning the puncture spot…the wipes that came away filthy brown most times and lightened that tiny patch of skin where I would insert the needle to take some of their precious blood to see if it was tainted with the curse of syphilis.
I would then drive the sample back to the clinic and deliver it to the lab and watch patiently as the techs spun it down and then took a drop of the serum and mixed it with the reagent that would quickly, slowly, or not at all react with its charcoal grains that meant those people or persons had been touched with that curse, that same curse that made me scream in my soul at receiving the blood test results of the newborn that was four times higher than its mom’s blood results taken at the same time.
Reading Steinbeck causes me to see the little insignificant things in life and marvel at their simple-ness and integral-ness to what we call life. He draws a big picture but fleshes it out with the details that I seem to be away from now that I’m in an office or call-center all day. I hear the distress of people on the phones or the excited-ness of the officers as they’re chasing someone and the usually calm voice of the sergeant saying that we are not in pursuit and watch the new dispatcher get amped-up and tense in her typing as she’s trying to get it all down in the officers’ radio traffic….
I see the same two hundred people every day or week and they all look the same in their uniforms and combed hair and large and cumbersome work bags and headsets and their lunches and breakfasts and coffee for their two best friends and supervisor who used to be only their friend but is now their friend’s supervisor, and the radio consoles and phones and computers for call-taking and dispatching and the tables that move up and down and the many chairs that must be arranged so just so in the corners to hold their extra bags and the ones that nobody wants to sit in because they stink or have strange stains where the person’s crotch would be sitting or the one wheel doesn’t turn or it’s wide enough to be a loveseat and some of them bring all kinds of shit from home with them that their desks look like their office at home with pictures of kids and husband and dog and their personal box of Kleenex and Lysol wipes and their three pens and packages of gum and this book and that and the notepad….
My car used to be my office, too, as I drove around from one side of the county to the next, taking my little binder with green cards that represented infections or contacts to infections and carried my notes of efforts to contact and find them on the back, and my pens and pencils in the cup holder and the extra napkins from McDonalds and Jack-in-the-Box and Filiberto’s and Armando’s and Adelberto’s and Los Betos from my own various lunches and breakfasts amid the wandering of my city and then.
I now drive only two or three roads to get to work and back and the commute is a sterile representation of only getting from one place to another, not the driving about and looking for people and noticing the shrimp shack or burger shack where they served pancakes or menudo on the weekends or used a small pickup truck to block the entrance to the car stereo shop when it was closed for business….
Sometimes I’d drive to El Mirage or Surprise and wonder at the surprise of being there, or wonder at what was seen in that first mirage seen out there so long ago before it had a sign naming the year of its incorporation and how many people lived there at the last count…and its cotton fields along which I would stop and pick a couple tufts of the white stuff and wonder at the years of oppression of people who were dragged from African shores to pick the stuff….
I would stand there for several minutes and wonder at the dirt and the irrigation channels and see and hear the aircraft from Luke AFB nearby and be thrown further away and into my childhood where these sights and sounds were a comfort and a normalcy of everyday stuff and business, and then get back into my car and drive past the fields of roses and other flowering bushes and shrubs and be amazed at how fields and fields of the things could be grown here in our hot scorching desert and then cut and shipped to other parts of the country or world to adorn people’s dining room tables….
Then I would drive past fields of onions being picked by hunched over brown skinned people and there would be a smell of sour-cream-and-onion potato chips in the air and I would drive to the far western side of Maricopa county in the truly bum-fuck-Egypt part of our world and find myself surrounded by the huge and monstrous and beautiful female cottonwood trees in full bloom with their white cottony shit flying thick and cloudlike in the afternoon breezes among the trailers and mobile homes parked and anchored in their allotted spaces with the Big-Wheel trikes and Tonka trucks tucked under and beside the wheeled homes that did or didn’t have the nice grating or plastic wall skirts all around their homes….
And the people were gentle and welcoming or suspicious as to why I would be all the way out there in their neck of the woods with my health department identification looking for their daughter or son or whomever and is the water not ok to drink out here or what?
When I read Steinbeck I wonder how I could abandon those field and dairy workers and their little families of infected people and cousins, leaving them to other devices and treatments when I used to be able to tell them to go to the clinic and don’t have sex until you do and the smell of chicken and cow shit is strong on the hot breeze as I stand there in the scorching sun with sweat running down my cheeks as I also smell their beans and ham hocks and rice cooking on the stove, emitting their own clouds of steam or the chilies roasting on the fifty-five gallon drums with the smoke penetrating the neighborhood and my clothes so that I still smell them when I’m driving home to my house in Glendale or Peoria and find some of those same chilies at the ABCO market or Food City…and I could look in their dark eyes and see the hope and trust or wonder or doubt as my white self told them what they needed to do to take care of themselves as their little Juanito ran around in his diaper and nothing else eating a peach with stickiness on his face and hands and arms and belly as he chased their dogs from the trailer to the shed and back….
Now it perturbs me when someone steals my favorite spoon out of my desk drawer at work and I feel the need to send scathing emails to my coworkers accusing them of thievery or asking who dropped the coffee bomb on my desk and among my pictures and I used to not care about such things as I drove my client to Jack-in-the-Box on the way to the clinic so I could buy her two Jumbo Jacks and a large curly-fries and a large Coke because she only had a package of dry Ramen noodles yesterday….
I had found her at her shit-hole trailer at Sixth Avenue and Jones that day and looked into her home and saw daylight shining up through the plywood covered floor and the kids were missing some of their front teeth as they eyed me suspiciously and asked me in their maturity what I wanted with their mom….
The older one noticed that the last name on my ID tag was the same as his and asked if I knew his family…and his name was also Josh, like my 12yo son and he was going to be 12 in November, too…and he was cute and had the same gentleness in his eyes as my Josh did/does…and I wondered at how life could be so unfair and so fucked-up for this little Joshua when things seemed and were so nice for my little Joshua….
I could smell his house and home and filth and dreams for the rest of the day, even after I blew my nose several times, chewed sharp and tingly gum and had enchiladas and salsa for lunch…I could still smell those things of that other Joshua’s house as I drove home to mine those several hours later after taking his HIV positive mom to my clinic so we could also treat her gonorrhea and chlamydia and try to convince her to stop sleeping with her boyfriend who was already dying from AIDS….
But she wouldn’t and didn’t and we came to see her on the foster care review board and later saw that she died and was no more and that her other children went the way of the wind and some and now I’m concerned with ferreting out the problem with the radio and is it the jack or the bottom part of the dispatcher’s headset that suddenly crashed and made the sergeant call me to say that we lost our dispatcher so we’re going car to car, thought you’d like to know….
I know there are Steinbeck stories in the radio room and among the 9-1-1 operators…and their hair is so shiny and their perfume or lotion smells so sweet and their cars are so pretty in the parking lot and the digital picture frames of their children and vacations are so expensive and their cruises are so interesting and so far removed from the shit side of life…and they do have their trials and difficulties and their parents die violent deaths in car accidents and murder-suicides and their lives do suck sometimes too….
But somehow there is no parallel between this and sitting in the small interview room of the clinic or sitting in the dirt under one of the ancient eucalyptus trees in an alley on the south side of town while a hugely fat, dark purple-black man who just told me about the hood rat who sucked his dick and gave him syphilis changes the subject so quickly and asks me if I know Jesus….
I love reading Steinbeck.
***This is a Favorite Re-post from November, 2009.
If you’ve read my “About the Blog” page, you will already know or understand that I spent more than ten years working as a police 9-1-1 operator, dispatcher, and communications supervisor. While I no longer do that type of work, my daughter and several friends do…so the memories of “answering the call” are still fresh.
April 8-14, 2012 is National Public Safety Telecommunicators’ Week…as decreed by Congress at least three times over the last twenty or so years. During this special week, 9-1-1 call centers often host open-houses and sponsor tours to give their tax-paying public a glimpse into their work lives and a better understanding of what actually happens when they dial 9-1-1. This is also a week of celebration, essentially, when those same call-center employees are honored by various businesses, agencies, and private citizen groups and individuals for the role they play in contributing to the safety of their communities. There is often a festive atmosphere in the call-centers during this week, when there are gifts and raffles and theme-based banquets and pot-luck dinners, all sponsored by the particular police/fire departments, the call-center administrators, and those businesses and citizen groups mentioned earlier.
In tribute to those women and men (and my family members and friends) who have worked and/or still work “answering the call,” I am re-visiting an earlier essay that details the work performed by those police 9-1-1 operators and dispatchers. Please click on this link “Inside the Roller-Coaster” to take a closer look.
For eleven years, I worked in an environment where crime and death were a part of
my every day. No, not the literal substance of crime and death in the immediateness of my day, except when one of
our lesser-esteemed employees stole a co-worker’s Christmas tree, but we dealt
with the once-removed essence of those crimes and deaths that occurred on the
streets where our police officers patrolled and worked and where our 9-1-1
callers sought our help, as we were and are 9-1-1 operators and police
dispatchers. We were the pre-first-responders
who sent the first-responders on their calls.
We didn’t enjoy when bad-guys came to their naturally occurring ends, but we
didn’t weep too many tears, either. We did, however, sometimes suffer the emotional burden of carrying our more
innocent victims’ fates, and yes, we struggled under that weight even more when
the victim ended-up being one of our officers or an officer from a neighboring
agency. Within our police community, the Blue did run deep, even for those of us who were not on the street, but who
answered the calls on the 9-1-1 phones and who worked the radios, dispatching
officers and sending Help on its way.
Working in the Radio and 9-1-1 rooms, we would only hear the other details of the event
from the streets as the news made it to us through its various channels: calls
from officers who were friends or family members, reports from patrol
supervisors that were forwarded up through the chain-of-command and passed our
desks or email in-boxes on the way, or through first-person recollections as
those officer friends or family members came to visit us. We often heard stories or recollections of
what it looked like out there, but we didn’t often get to see it ourselves. Most of those stories were related to the events
leading up to the tragedy, or those that occurred immediately following it; we
weren’t often exposed to what happened in the hours and days following the
death of an officer.
I left the police community over a year ago in pursuit of a job and an environment
where crime and death existed in the news and not in my every day, where they
were not the substance of my work. Even though I have moved away in a physical and emotional sense, I still have
contact with some of my former co-workers and still receive information about
the happenings within that police community where I worked for those many
years. The following “story,” or recounting of events, was written by one of the Phoenix Police Department’s
sergeants after he participated in the aftermath of the recent shooting death
of a police officer in the neighboring city of Glendale, Arizona. The sergeant’s details fill-in some of the
blanks that have remained in my own knowledge of the events following such a
tragedy, even though I was involved in the communications aspect of this type
of police work for several years. I came across this writing on Facebook, where I saw it posted a couple of times, with
credit given in both instances to Phil Roberts.
“Anyone wonder what happens to a police officer after
he is killed in the line of duty? Unfortunately,
I had the sad opportunity, and yet the privilege, to find out firsthand. Several days ago, 27 year-old Glendale Police
Officer Brad Jones was shot in the line of duty by a suspect who is not worth
the dirt we walk on. From the moment his “brothers and sisters”
arrived on scene, the officer was never alone. While the fire department treated him,
transported him to the hospital, and during his final moments here on Earth, he
was surrounded by family and fellow officers. Then when he left the hospital, as a matter of
reality, he had to go to the Medical Examiner’s office. He was escorted the entire way by officers
from St. Joseph’s Hospital and never left alone. Twenty-four hours a day, a Glendale officer
was posted at the M.E.’s office. Brad was never alone. When he arrived that
fateful morning at the M.E.’s office, every available patrol officer in South
Mountain Precinct in Phoenix, where the M.E.’s office is located, lined the
streets with overhead lights flashing, stood outside their cars and rendered a
hand salute…at 3:30 AM. Glendale officers
stood the watch with Phoenix officers, constantly checking to see if they
needed anything: a sandwich, a drink or maybe just a brief break. Brad was never alone.
Then yesterday afternoon it was time for Brad to be delivered to a funeral home. I was
privileged to be part of an estimated twenty police cars, formed at an
impromptu moment, just from South Mountain Precinct in Phoenix to pay what
respect we could. We lined 7th Avenue at
the beginning of rush hour, stopped our cars with overhead lights on and
standing at hand salute. As the procession passed the Phoenix Police
Department’s Crime Lab over twenty lab technicians came out to the side of the
street and paid their respects to the M.E.’s vehicle with Phoenix officers
saluting, led by two Glendale motorcycle-officers, a Glendale police car and
two Phoenix police cars as they made their way to the funeral home in Surprise,
Arizona. Respect, total respect is what
happens to an officer after he is
killed in the line of duty…as it should be. Tonight a wife and two little girls
will go to bed without their father and daddy. But Brad is not alone…he never
was, never has been, and never will be.”
Thank you, Sergeant Roberts.
From the archives of PPD work-place memories:
In the wee hours of one long-ago morning, Stu Pidd stopped Vick Timm, who was riding his bike home after work. Stu Pidd produced a knife and demanded all of Vick Timm’s property. Vick Timm gave Stu Pidd his wallet, cell phone, house-key, two packs of gum, and his bike, and then left south-bound to call the police. Stu Pidd then took the bike across the street where he noticed two subjects in an SUV watching him. Stu Pidd approached the subjects in the SUV and produced his knife again, challenging them. The two subjects in the SUV, armed security guards for a nearby apartment complex, exited their SUV, drew their own weapons on Stu Pidd, and took him into custody. All of Vick Timm’s property was recovered and Stu Pidd was booked on one count of armed robbery and two counts of aggravated assault with a weapon.
As I sit here in this enchanted place that filled my dreams in my yesterdays and look around at what has become the reality of my everyday, at the white covered mountains and winter-bare trees, I reflect upon the things that I wrote in this season of the past year and marvel at what has changed and what has remained the same. I am thinking, too, of the friends that I spoke to in “Yes, I Spoke of You,” those noble and precious people who peopled my past and still live in my memories as I live in this new and present place.
When I read those writings from this time last year, I reflect on the workplace happenings of the holidays in “Postscript to a 9-1-1 Christmas.” It’s crazy, now, how my Christmas and this season are so different than they were last year. Instead of participating with my friends and co-workers in that Christmas morning banquet as we and they answered the call, I am sitting at home with part of my family, part only, as those friends are away from theirs for a bit, taking care of their citizen callers and officers for a shift of so many hours and then. They are writing more workplace holiday memories into the stories of their lives as I sit on the outside and remember what used to be.
There won’t be any or many Christmas cards sent from our house to yours this year. Life is still busy and crazy and boxes remain unpacked in their various places throughout the house as we’re trying to reassemble our uprooted lives and find places for those pictures and things that bring comfort to our hearts and souls when that need is real and upon us. Not many cards sent, but friendly faces and friendships remembered in this faraway place, those intangible tokens of an enjoyed and lived life.
So I wish you all happiness and peace in this holiday season, and I thank you again, as I have thanked you before, for creating those new worlds within me that are our paths walked together, the stories we’ve shared and lived in our workaday lives, and the experiences that have bound us together as friends. I thank you all.
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.”
I wonder what kind of day it would have been if it didn’t start with reading about a five year-old who died in her sleep…if I didn’t have to wonder if it was just a biological failing of her body, given that she was on a feeding-tube and had serious medical issues to begin with…or if maybe the caretaker, parent, mom, or whomever, had used a pillow during the child’s sleep to make sure she didn’t wake again. The fire department transported her, with a police car following…and then the officer stood-by to relay the status update to his sergeant…so we would know if they needed to roll homicide detectives…just in case. I wonder what kind of day it would have been if the next notification I received wasn’t that some adult child found their parent dead in their bedroom with their body wedged between the bed and the night-stand…or if another message that I received hadn’t told me about the dead body that the city’s building inspector found when he was making a visit to one of the apartment complexes in town…or that one of the fire department’s truck-crews was on its way to the grocery store to buy their shift’s food for the day and found a dead body laying somewhere…just laying there, out in the freaking middle of the day on a sidewalk or in the greenbelt between the lanes of traffic…or if the dispatcher hadn’t needed to tell me that an officer was assaulted by some guy he had pulled-over for blowing through a school zone….
I wonder what kind of day it would have been if another dispatcher hadn’t told me that there was a “real” unknown-trouble hot call being worked on the central tactical frequency…the caller, of which, had reported that he found a Navigator in the parking lot that had blood all over the driver-side door and steering wheel and seat. Oh yeah, and about an hour ago he had seen a 50-some year-old white guy walking behind the buildings carrying a bloody bed comforter. What kind of day would it have been if we didn’t end-up finding that 50-some year-old white guy with seven bullet holes in his chest…and then sent officers to the Navigator’s registered-owner’s house in another city to talk with the man’s wife…to check on her and then ask about her shot husband…. “He left for work a couple hours ago…maybe a little later than usual…yeah, he works around such-and-such an area.” The officers thanked her for her time and then made some phone calls back to our dispatcher and patrol supervisors. A little while later, the officers went back to the man’s house and asked his wife if they could come in and take a look around. “Sure…come on in.” They found blood and…. What kind of day would it have been, if when the medical center called the woman to come down to identify her husband’s body…it hadn’t taken her two hours to get down there…to learn that her husband had been shot seven times and taken two bullets directly in the heart…and then managed to drive from his home in that other city to his work-place in the middle of our city…what kind of day would it have been?
When a different neighboring city’s dispatchers called us and asked that we check a certain vehicle leaving their city and coming into our city with four or five people inside who didn’t want to be inside, but were being driven against their will out and around and wherever…and we broadcast the information and an officer thought he was behind the vehicle and many more officers arrived to watch and follow and help when and how they could…and somehow that vehicle turned in front of or behind and into an alley or neighborhood and parked in some dark invisible place and we lost them and didn’t know where they could be…but those four or five people had dark skin and said they had been kidnapped…what kind of day would it have been if that hadn’t happened?
Later that afternoon, what kind of day would it have been if we hadn’t come across a drop-house, a den or lair of human coyotes who steal and smuggle and rape and kill and extort and abuse people who trusted them to bring them to a better life across a river and imaginary boundary that exists on maps and in minds…and officers set an inner and outer perimeter to catch all of the fleeing coyotes when they ran…and we caught four bad-guys and rescued four good guys and gals and called ICE to come and get “their” people….
And what kind of day would it have been if a caller hadn’t found that little two year-old wandering the street in his diaper and striped tennis-shoes…hadn’t called us and said “Please come get this baby…yes, I’ll stay here until you get here, I couldn’t just drive by and not stop”…like so many people do sometimes.
What kind of day would it have been if the young man hadn’t called to tell us that his friend was going to kill himself…had a gun and was going to do it…and was going to leave the apartment door unlocked for us…what kind of day would it have been if he hadn’t refused to come out of the apartment when we got there…if he would have just come out on his own…but no, we had to call it a barricade and call-out the dogs and the SWAT guys and restrict the channel so the dispatcher didn’t have to work any other traffic…just listen to me…to us, as we work this mess…all for a guy who wanted to die, but was too chicken or too undecided to do it after telling everyone that he was going to…and we set-up our police camp and command-post outside his door and around the corner and pretended that there was a real boogey-man inside who was a threat to himself and others and we were coming to protect the “others” from him in case he decided not to hurt himself, but them. What kind of day would it have been if we had packed our shit and just walked and driven away from that guy who didn’t want to come out…?
What kind of day would it have been if the mom or dad or aunt or grown cousin of that little diaper and tennis-shoe clad two year-old had come looking for him so we didn’t have to place him with Child Protective Services…if they had even noticed he was gone?
What kind of day would it have been if that other neighbor hadn’t called us to tell us that a woman was chasing her eight year-old son through the apartment complex holding a knife in one hand and a belt in the other…running and yelling “Get back here, you little shit-head…I’m gonna beat yo ass!” What kind of day would it have been? “I don’t think she’s right in the head,” the caller told the 9-1-1 operator. She had left her one year-old and six year-old kids in the apartment as she ran and chased her older son. An officer cleared after a bit and asked that we roll the counselor/crisis-team van from the fire department to take care of the other kids.
And what kind of day would it have been if there weren’t constant and insistent messages flashing on my computer screen all fucking day long about police needing to come to this school and that, this hospital and that hospital or this aunt’s house or grandmother’s house or CPS worker’s office to take this report and that report about some loved one or trusted one or some stranger or some assistant coach hitting or bruising or fondling or fucking some child who was just going about their days and lives trying to be a kid over the weekend or last week and he’s still got bruises…and the 16 year-old girl woke-up this morning and she was naked and groggy and it was burning and hurting between her legs and she doesn’t know what happened or how she got where she was and she just called her mom and she called us…and the Spanish-speaking father called us to say that his 14 year-old son was walking home from the store and a truck full of Mexicans had pulled-over and grabbed him into the truck and then stole his cell phone and wallet and had beat him and touched him “down there” and…what kind of day would it have been if another dad hadn’t called to report that he found text-messages on his 17 year-old son’s cell phone talking about how he was having sex with the dad’s 26 year-old girlfriend…what kind of day would it have been?
And those were just some of the things that happened in only eight hours of a single Monday at 9-1-1 and police dispatch…just one shift…in the fifth or sixth largest city in the country….
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?”
A few days ago, I was listening to one of my newer dispatchers work an accident call at a major intersection in our large city. There were several vehicles involved and traffic was a mess with nobody getting through the intersection, others crossing through parking lots at corner businesses, and yet others cutting into and through the alleyways that exist in and around the immediate vicinity. One of the vehicles involved was a large pick-up truck that was pulling a horse-trailer. Evidently, this truck and trailer plowed into a passenger car that was in the left-turn lane and was trying to make it across the intersection between passing vehicles. The passenger car was being driven by a 15 year-old boy who had his learner’s permit and had his father in the front passenger seat. The boy was transported to a local children’s hospital and the dad was transported to a major trauma center. The last report was that the boy was in stable condition. The next day, we learned that the father passed-away from his injuries…he caught the full impact of the truck pulling the horse-trailer.
Was the boy excited that day to go for a drive? Did he pester his dad relentlessly to take him out to practice? Or was the dad the one who offered…? “Hey, I’m running up to the store, wanna drive?”
How long will it be until the boy has a desire to get his license again?