911 dispatch and the art of thick skin.

I have always said that, “in the moment of crisis, we are the voice of authority.” It’s something that I firmly believe. We as dispatchers are your link to the help you need. We do our best with every call because that’s what we do. We get the job done and send help where help is needed. When our caller is overwhelmed with panic and fear we are there to calm them down. It’s not an easy job and it amazes me how some people can think that we are merely drones with no emotion. I can tell you from personal experience that this is far from true. The job itself is easy to learn but it’s the emotional stress that can take a toll on you.

Let’s start with a scenario. You wake up on a beautiful spring morning. The sun is shining, the birds are chirping and you have the whole day ahead of you. You look over at your spouse and your heart drops. What you see before you has taken your breath way and your heart is racing. You panic and begin to shake your spouse…he doesn’t move. You want to cry but you can’t. You begin to sweat and in your moment of shock and panic you run next door to ask your neighbor for help. This can’t be happening. Not today, not for a long time you think, but it is happening. You lay next to your lifeless spouse as your neighbor calls 911.  It’s horrifying, is it not? This is a call I took a few years ago. I spoke to the neighbor and all I could hear in the background was a female yelling for her husband. I remained calm and did my job but inside I was dying.

“Don’t leave me! Please, not now…we had so much time left together!”

I’ve heard shouting like this many times. I have felt my callers pain and I think what makes it hard is that there is no closure. When we take 911 calls we try to deal with them one at a time but sometimes it gets so busy that we have to go back and forth between them. Once the call is over and help has arrived we go right to the next one. Sometimes the only way we find out the outcome is when someone calls for the medical examiner. I mean, if we ever get the chance we’ll find out some information but otherwise we’re in the dark and it makes it hard. I’ve listened to more death than you can imagine. I have heard those taking their last breaths, and I have heard families grieving for their loved ones. One can develop thick skin but it doesn’t always work. After listening to the screams of those in need and those in mourning it definitely starts to penetrate the defenses of ones emotions.

I remember when I worked in Florida many years ago. It was my first night alone and I was chatting with the Chief before he headed home. As he left the door swung open. A lady ran in crying and screaming. I could barely make out what she was saying. The Chief and an officer left to a near by residence and the lady remained in the lobby sobbing. She had just come from her residence where she found her husband. She had recently left him but decided to go patch things up. She wanted to be with him again but instead she found his suicide note.  This is how my dispatching career began. I remember how surreal the moment was. I remember how I felt for this woman who had just found her husband dead. I wanted to go over and hug her as she cried for him but I couldn’t. I had a job to do and I remained in my seat. For the rest of my time in Florida, I believe that was the worst call I ever experienced. It wasn’t until my current job that I dealt with it more frequently.

There is nothing worse than listening to someone die. Those last gasping breaths can haunt you. The calls that get me the most have to do with giving CPR instructions. I was once told that if you’re giving CPR instructions the person has a 5% chance of coming back. Every call I have taken, I hope and pray that the person falls within that 5%. It doesn’t always happen that way though. There is no consistent happy ending but the majority of the time there are other factors to ones death that CPR cannot fix. It’s a hard job but this is what my co-workers and I do. I could go on and on with the scary parts of my job but I will stop for now. There is a lot more that I have dealt with but this is just another glimpse into dispatch. The emotions flow within us like any other person but we hold back in order to do the best job imaginable. Would you ask for anything less?


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