The dreaded 911 call. You just have no idea what is going through a 911 dispatcher’s head as they are taking or dispatching an emergency call, unless you have sat behind that console and done it yourself. I have been dispatching on and off for twenty-one years, in two different states. Policies change. Computer systems change. Phone systems change. Bosses change. Partners change. The cops and firemen you work with change. But, one thing that never changes are the thoughts that we have every-single-time your life is placed in our hands.
Get the right address. Don’t forget the phone number. Get the right answers. Get the call in faster. Push the right button. Dispatch the right help. Ask more questions. Reassure the caller. Give them medical instructions. Please, breathe. Just breathe. Please let me hear them breathe.
Recently, I took a call of a baby not breathing. It’s the dreaded call. The one nobody ever wants to take. The one no medic wants to respond to. The one that guarantees your heart will drop and your blood pressure will rise. I did everything I was trained to do. I got the information. I dispatched the medics. I gave CPR instructions. My partners in the room did all the right things, too. I listened on an open line for a little bit after the medics got there. I heard them working on him. At one point, I heard a noise that sounded like a baby crying. My partner and I looked at each other at the same time, hopeful. It was short lived. The baby was gone. I hung up the phone, took a deep breath, cleared my head, and took the next call. Because, it’s what I’m trained to do.
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My partners asked me if I needed a break. I told them I did not. And, when I looked at them, for a brief moment, their stories flashed before me. Not too long ago, one of them took a call of a stabbing where a witness described in great deal what they were seeing. She also had a call where she listened to a man shoot and kill another man while on the phone. The other one took a call several years ago from a lady who had been stabbed by her husband and was calling from the trunk of the car he placed her in. The dispatcher’s voice was the last voice she heard before she died. And that same dispatcher sat with her children after the incident at the police department and got them stuffed animals and read to them until family could pick them up. She rocked them and played with them knowing full well their mother was dead, and their father was never going to come home.
Yet, dispatchers are not considered by some as first responders. Dispatchers are not thought of when it comes to things like PTSI. Dispatchers are not seen the same as the boots on the ground because they don’t “see” a traumatic event. And, if you don’t see it, you must not feel it, right? If your hands didn’t get bloodied, then it’s not real, right? After all, all the dispatcher did was answer the phone and send help. Easy.
I will tell you this. There is nothing easy about it. We all react differently, but we all react. Some of us shut down. Some of us turn it off. Some of us cry. Some of us talk about it. Some of us relate. Some of us say nothing. Some of us seek help. Some of us don’t. Whatever the reaction is, it’s not easy, and dispatchers should never be forgotten. They should never feel like they don’t matter. They should be considered your first-first responder, because they truly are. They should be given the same retirement options. They should have the same training. They should be afforded the same resources as the cops and firemen who get their hands dirty. And while many states, like mine, are fighting for that, there is still a long road ahead for the men and women who do this job every day.
In the meantime, I implore you not to forget your dispatchers. Not in debriefings, not in discussions, not in trainings, not in your comments, your thoughts, or even in your praise. Because while the people answering your call may not see you, or touch you, or ever look you in the eyes, they hear you, and in your crisis, they will help you. They will be the first to respond, they will be the first to get you the right help, and your voice will be seared into their memories. Your story will be imprinted on their hearts and I promise you that for years to come, they will think about you, over and over and over again.
The day I took my dreaded call, I went right back to work. It’s how I cope. Like so many other dispatchers, we just go right back to it. I expected to feel down, but I also expected to keep plugging along. I expected that I would second guess myself, which is very common in my world. I expected the room would be still and quiet for a bit, which it was. I expected my partners would reach out, and they did. But, what I didn’t expect was a visit in my center from the fire crew that was on scene and who, like true heroes, tried to save that baby’s life.
There was no fanfare, no ticker tape parade. They came in together, stood before me and asked me if I had any questions. I really didn’t in that moment, but I found a few to present. And when they were done telling me what I needed to know, they asked if we could all share a hug. Now listen, I am not a huge hugger. I like my personal space. But, when you are asked to be drawn into an area of comfort with people whose hearts are hurting as much as yours are, you stand up and take the hug. Because they get it. They understand it. And this group of guys did not forget that their dispatchers that day needed it. They can’t offer us a new classification, they can’t offer us benefits we deserve, they can’t offer us early retirement. But what they can offer us, and what they did give us was a sense that we belonged. That we were an integral part of the crisis that day. That we deserved to hear we did all the right things.
And because of that brief moment on a snowy afternoon, I will forever be grateful that they thought enough of us to check on us and offer what they could. I hope every dispatcher who needs that gets it. I hope every agency out there realizes how important this is. I hope every citizen sees that your dispatcher is a hero, too and I hope every dispatcher sees their worth. I hope that someday, this will be the norm and that dispatchers won’t have to fight for their place. But above all, I hope you know we truly care. I hope you know how much we are affected by you, and how much we think about you. I hope you know that we are always going to do our best, get you help, keep our responders safe and hold the thin gold line. We are always going to be the calm voice in your storm, we are always going to wish you the best, and we are always going to pick ourselves up and go right back to it.
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