Something you might not think about all that often: 911 dispatch. First of all, most people likely haven’t had to call in to 911 for an emergency. And that’s a good, and thankful thing. But surely there are readers here who definitely have. And while the person on the other end may sound bored, disinterested, or simply vacant, they are trained to be just that way.
The reality of a 911 dispatcher is much different. Trained to be stoic so as not to raise stress in callers who have serious issues to deal with, these workers are anything but stoic. Suffering from PTSD, insomnia, depression, alcoholism, and more, dispatchers have got some serious weight on their shoulders.
Think about how many calls came in to 911 during 9/11. Each dispatcher had to hear the explosions, the screams, the graphic details about people jumping from the buildings. It was easy to know the aftermath of that incident. But dispatchers are not always so lucky to get closure on a call.
Did that person die of a heart attack? Did the guy who called in, stabbed, bleed out? Is that baby breathing again? 911 dispatchers work a thankless job, with some terrifying truths…
15. Many Dispatchers Suffer From PTSD
Think for a little bit about all the possible emergency calls that go through the 911 dispatch. Then imagine almost never knowing the outcome of the incident after leaving the call. That’s the life of a 911 dispatcher. Sure, they may not witness people being shot, or stabbed, or blown up; they may not see a baby suffocate, or someone jump off a building…but they have to listen to all of these things. They also have to listen to other peoples’ reactions to these things. For this very reason, a good number of dispatchers suffer from PTSD. Surely they wouldn’t rather be in a war zone, but they definitely don’t want to get paid $10.50/hr listening to one. These people get paid less than a newbie at McDonald’s, but the amount they suffer is far more than clogged arteries, annoying customers, and the smell of fryer oil.
14. The Police Can’t Always Locate You
This might be a very scary thing to know about the communication between you as an emergency caller, the 911 dispatcher, and the police officers sent to deal with the situation. For some reason, 911 dispatches don’t seem to really have the whole Google thing on lock. So say you’re not totally sure of your location when you call 911. The officer coming to investigate may not really know where to go. Certain cell phone providers have very good tracking abilities, but others apparently can put officers blocks away from an incident. Landlines will give confirmed locations…so as difficult as it may be, calling from a landline is always your best option to get help to your exact location. There have been many cases where an officer has shown up too late because of poor tracking information provided by cell phones.
13. Baby Calls Are The Worst
It’s no surprise that 911 dispatchers really have to grow a thick skin in order to continue working their thankless job. But there are some things that people just can’t handle, no matter how thick a skin they grow. “Everyone hates a baby call. If you get a call that a baby isn’t breathing, the whole room gets really, really quiet and all the dispatchers pull for the person giving CPR instructions. I’ve had a couple that have gone badly and those are hard to let go.” Imagine being the one to give instructions to hopefully save a child’s life…and then imagine that the baby dies anyway. Dispatchers will often blame themselves, and not just feel guilty for the death of the child, but also for the grief of the parents. It’s no wonder that some of these people suffer from PTSD, and insomnia…and alcoholism.
12. Sometimes Dispatch Will Just Hang Up On You
Here is a very helpful tip: always treat your 911 dispatcher with respect. They understand that you’re likely going through one of the worst days of your life (or you’re just calling to see how to get a lizard out of your printer – true story), but it’s not like they have a very fun job to begin with. You might end up calling just after a dispatcher has listened to a person’s final breath after being stabbed. They may have been yelled at over the phone all day. There comes a point where being rude to a dispatcher may cause them to simply hang up on you. True, not a very good practise for the dispatcher, but unless they’re falling asleep at their station (true story), it’s likely that you said something to cause them to hang up. So again, when you call in an emergency, don’t treat your dispatcher like sh*t!
11. There’s A Priority List For 911 Calls
As calls come in to 911 dispatch, they alert the police as give each call a rating. High priority calls (like serious emergencies) mean that the officers will drop everything to get to the scene. And you will hear those sirens blasting. Other events that are less serious, but still a present issue will see the police motoring, but without all the noise. But then there are the calls that end up on the bottom wrung of the 911 call ladder. “A low code call tells officers, ‘if you need to go get some coffee or grab lunch, it’s a good time to do it on the way to this call.’ No matter what time officers arrive, it won’t affect the outcome.” So ultimately, your call, depending on the severity may be dealt with after a trip to Dunkin’ Donuts. So just remember, if the cops are taking a long time to get to you, someone is in more imminent danger…that or the cops are just dawdling.
10. A Lot Of Dispatchers Are Insomniacs
In spite wanting to sleep their weekend away, a good number of 911 dispatchers can’t actually do it. Why? Because they’ve become insomniacs. And there are a number of ways that this can start off a dispatcher. They may dream too frequently of the horrors they have heard over the phone. Or they may become paranoid to go to sleep, since all they hear at work are the horrible things that happen to people day in and day out. No matter how it starts, it certainly makes living a normal life pretty damn difficult. Of course drugs and alcohol are some of the ways dispatchers manage to get some shut eye every once in a while. The sleep may not be great if you just pass out in a drunken stupor. But it’s got to beat hearing those calls in your head all day long.
9. Most 911 Calls Aren’t Emergencies
About half the calls to 911, in some places, are nothing more than butt dials. And in addition to that, the vast majority of calls aren’t even emergencies anyway. “The level of distress somebody is displaying is in no way correlated to how serious their problem is. The people who are screaming the most generally have overflowing toilets. But the calmest guy will call up and say, ‘I don’t really wanna bother anybody, but my wife isn’t breathing.’” Imagine someone calling about an overflowing toilet. Or the need for emergency services to plow their driveway so they can get to work. Or for help because of cardiac arrest…of their goldfish! All of these stories have actually happened to real-life 911 dispatchers. It’s no wonder they sometimes just hang up. After all, there’s no known cure for stupid.
8. Rookies Usually Take Your Calls
The statistics for 911 dispatchers are pretty grim. Only about one third of a new group of dispatchers will ever actually stay with the job. But those few who make it through, end up with the short end of the stick very, very quickly. Those who have been around for a while, and have seniority, know exactly the shifts that bring in the most depressing, and most stressful calls. And because of that, they tend to book shifts so that they no longer have to deal with it. Often times there are not veteran dispatchers in the room when some very serious sh*t goes down. This sort of practise must harden a dispatcher very quickly, but it also must make for a lot of tension between newbies and veterans. And this sort of cruel scheduling is likely part of the reason so many people just can’t stick with the job.
7. The Super Bowl Clogs The Lines
Sports fans are absolutely ridiculous, it turns out. Many of you may very well have already known this though. Anyway, apparently when the Super Bowl is happening, the 911 lines are usually pretty damn quiet. However, dispatch always knows right when the game is done. How do they know? They typically get dozens of calls about heart attacks, strokes, or other incidences. Why so many all at once? Because the people who had these emergencies chose to suffer through until the end of the game before calling in their issue. This apparently happens every single year without fail. I wonder how many have died from taking so long to call in. The Super Bowl, and holidays are two times dispatch just knows there will be an influx of heart attacks, custody battles, and suicides.
6. Butt Dials Can Kill!
Ever since cell phones could fit in pockets, there has been the infamous butt dial. And that’s fine when it comes to butt dialing a friend when you’re at a party. It gets a little awkward when you butt dial an ex-girlfriend…literally giving her a booty call. But it gets a whole lot more serious when you butt dial 911. In New York, about half of the annual calls to 911 are butt dials. That’s roughly 84 million calls per year. Every time someone calls, and then hangs up, the dispatcher is mandated to return the call to confirm emergency or not. Imagine how many minutes that takes up…84 million calls, one minute to listen to the butt dial, then another minute to call back…approximately, butt dials waste about 168 minutes of 911 dispatchers’ time.
5. Cops Might Just Take Their Sweet Time…
This is, of course, not the norm, but it’s certainly something to think about. There may be a priority list for emergency callers, but police officers don’t necessarily always pay much attention to it, or care. There was a girl who though she might be mugged, beaten, or raped, as she noticed someone following her home, and lingering outside her home. She called dispatch, and they sent an officer to her. The cop called in that he was at the location (though he lied and was just a few blocks away, taking his time getting there). Thinking that the cop was there, the dispatcher instructed the woman to go outside to meet the officer…who wasn’t there. This time around, the woman was not hurt, but both she, and the dispatcher were furious. The cop eventually showed up, and things were all clear. But there have been other incidences where things didn’t turn out so rosy.
4. Dispatchers Multitask
Don’t take it personally, but often times when you call in to 911, the dispatcher on the other end may very well be knitting, or browsing Facebook, or Pinterest. One dispatcher in particular, who spends more of her shifts on Pinterest remarked, “I’m like holy crap I just saved somebody’s life without realizing what I was doing.” Now that might seem pretty crazy, and irresponsible but…well I guess it kind of is in a way. That being said, it’s also understandable. Dispatchers almost never get a break (including to go to the bathroom), so they have to sit, and keep alert for 8-12 hours per shift. I’d personally rather my dispatcher be interested in something on the internet when they take the call than…asleep. And given that dispatchers do sometimes fall asleep at their post, or accidentally hang up due to fatigue, I’m happier knowing some of them keep themselves engaged.
3. Sometimes Family Is On The Line
Something many people probably never think of when they think of 911 dispatch: the people who are on the phones happen to have families of their own. Sometimes, they end up getting a call from a friend or family member, and then still have to steel themselves to deal with the emergency, and not break down. “I had to talk my father-in-law through what we both feared might have been my mother-in-law’s heart attack. She turned out to be fine, but I was shaking for a while afterward. That may even be a tame example. There’s a call they play for us in training: A police officer named Julie Jacks was attacked by an escaped mental patient a few years back, and her mic got keyed on. She ended up getting shot and dying in the attack, and the folks on the line (including her husband) had to sit there and listen to everything.”
2. There Isn’t Often Closure
One of the biggest issues for 911 dispatchers is the incredible lack of closure. This is probably the biggest thing that keeps them awake at night, and leads them to depression, PTSD, and a whole lot of drinking. Many times there will be a massive collision, or they will be on the phone with someone who was shot. Or even someone who thinks they might be having a heart attack. Unfortunately for dispatch, they’re not often given a follow up on just what happened with each call. The officers are sent from the closest precinct, and they deal with the situation one way or another. The dispatcher just has to keep taking calls, while they hope everything turned out alright. Of course they know that’s not always the case by any stretch of the imagination.
1. Dispatchers Are Usually Poor Artists
“You rarely see someone come into a job as a dispatcher where that is their career goal,” says one dispatcher. As it turns out, a great many of the people who turn up for this job are artists of some way, shape, or form. Which is actually probably for the best. Imagine the sort of inspiration this kind of awful, thankless job must provide. “I work with five or six people who have written and published books because that’s what they want to do but they can’t make any money doing it so they do this four days a week.” How incredibly depressing is that? The days I’m thankful I make money as a writer. I couldn’t imagine taking that job in order to pay the bills. Surely the writing and the music that comes from those who work as dispatchers though must be very profound…and very dark. An exhibition should be done, just to show how tortured so many of these workers are.
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