People call 9-1-1 in an emergency and always hear a calm, prepared voice on the other end of the line. While call-takers and dispatchers are trained to deal with people experiencing trauma or tragedy, it is not an easy job. To give you a sense of what it is like on the other side of the phone call, here is a look behind the scenes of the dispatch center, based on my 10 year experience as a 9-1-1 telecommunicator and supervisor.
Football, fires and fights
Some things happen like clockwork. It is going to be quiet during the football game on Sunday, and the phone is going to light up when it is over. People drink during the game, get angry when their team loses, and unfortunately, sometimes they take it out on their friends and family. Thanksgiving day always starts out with oven and kitchen fires (yes, believe it or not, some people actually do try to deep fry their turkey inside the house), and it almost always ends with domestic dispute calls. Fourth of July, as you can imagine, is ambulance calls and, unfortunately, more domestic disputes.
Call takers may manage more than one caller at a time
They are trained to prioritize calls, and may have several callers on the line at the same time. While a dispatcher is talking to you, if a higher priority call comes in, they are trained to “triage” all the calls in their queue. Another operator may take over your call while the first operator manages the other call, or they may ask you to hold on for a moment. Threats to life always get the highest priority. Threats to life include calls reporting health issues, such as a heart attack, but also domestic calls, reports of gang activity, reports of fights or any other call in which an individual or a group or people are in danger of physical harm. Situations that are happening right now get more immediate attention than events that happened in the past. Be patient with this. Just imagine if you called to report a loved one having a heart attack, and your 9-1-1 operator put you on hold to manage a damage to property report. You’d be pretty upset.
Take the good with the bad
We are there to give guidance, and provide life-saving advice. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I remember a call I took one night around 3 a.m. from a sweet, little old lady. She told me her house was on fire, and I told her to put down the phone and get outside as quickly and safely as she could. When the firefighters returned from the scene, they advised they found her by the back door. She had almost made it to safety, but probably couldn’t work the lock in time before she was >overcome by the smoke. The sound of her soft, sweet voice still echoes in my ears, many years later, and I will never forget her. Then on the other hand, you’ll get a caller who says, “I’m terribly sorry to bother you, but my husband doesn’t seem to be breathing” as calmly as she’d tell you, “Excuse me, but I ”. That’s when you know you do this job for a reason. That’s when you can really make a difference, and change what could be a horrific memory into a good one. I remember at least 25 people that are alive today because they called 9-1-1, I answered the phone, and my training enabled me to help save their life.
Press any key for “yes”
In some terrible situations it may not be possible to talk when you call 9-1-1. Call-takers are trained to handle those situations. If you’re choking or having a heart attack, or if there’s an intruder in the home, they will ask yes or no questions that can be answered by pressing any button for “yes”. Also, many 9-1-1 centers can manage text-to-9-1-1 calls. Check with your local 9-1-1 center before an emergency strikes to find out if this service is available in your area, so you can be prepared when, and if, you need it.
A tough business
Probably the toughest part of the job is that call takers never get closure. They help people through maybe one of the most traumatic moments of their lives. It’s intense. Then, the first responders arrive and they hang up and are on to the next call. They rarely learn what happened to the person they were helping. You remember both the good calls and the bad calls, but the good ones are the ones that help bring you back to work day after day.
Learn more about 9-1-1 best practices, and how telecomunicators are truly the first, first responders in any emergency.