Recently I was honored when fellow Officer.com writer, John Wills, asked me to provide a story for his new compilation, Warriors in High Heels. This collection of stories focuses on the experience of female first responders, including dispatchers. The proceeds of the book will benefit the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund. Definitely a good cause.
Although it took me longer than I’d like to admit, I finished my story for the book and spent some time reflecting on completing my first memoir-type narrative. Having been a dispatcher, as well as, an officer’s wife, I have a unique combination of experiences. I enjoyed writing the piece and the reflection and wanted to share a few more stories with my readers.
During my time with Phoenix PD, the department required 9-1-1 operators to cross-train in dispatch within in the first year of employment. This was short lived because the department realized what employees recognized for years: some people are great 9-1-1 operators and lousy dispatchers and vice versa. It was a shame the department would terminate good single-trained operators especially when we were always short staffed. Anyway, that’s a whole other topic.
I cross-trained within my first year and I loved it immediately. I grew to not like 9-1-1 as much. I guess I tolerated it. I had much more fun working with the officers. For the most part, I could understand what they needed and decipher what they were saying unlike on the 9-1-1 lines where I felt my patient was tried time and time again. Maybe that was a good thing for me: learning how to be patient with others. But, again I digress.
Clare was my radio trainer. She had been with the department a long time. She was loud. She was abrupt. She was bossy. She pushed me and never let me do less than what I was capable of which was my best. I loved her. I also believe she made me a competent, responsible, respected dispatcher. It was a joke between her, me and my best friend and her trainer (she was cross-training at the same time and we almost had a competition going to see who would go on her own first—I did) that only the elite could make it in radio and therefore when you do you become a radio princess. I loved the image of it and stated I would wear a tiara on my first day on my own. They all said they would hold me to that.
I learned I was going on my own the night before I went on my own. Clare told me it would probably be just the last hour of the shift. That helped ease the anxiety a bit. That day, I came in prepared for my one hour with my tiara on. I did my hair all pretty around it and I felt great. My trainer and I were scheduled on the South Side channel together and when I walked in she was preparing to set up on the West Side channel. I asked her if we’d been switched. She looked at me and said, “You’re on your own.” So, I did the only thing I could do—I sat down on South Side, fluffed my hair, adjusted my crown and took over. Half-way through the shift, I had a pursuit. I was nervous as all get out but I was dressed the part of a radio princess and I worked it to the best of my ability. Eventually we called it off due to safety, but it was great experience. With that under my belt, I didn’t have to worry about having my first emergency traffic ever again. Now every time I look at my tiara, I remember that night and the importance of the advice, “If you look confident, you are confident.”
When I tell people I’m a dispatcher/9-1-1 operator, many respond with, “That must be so hard,” “How do you deal with all the tragedy?” or “Does it ever bother you?” In general I can say, “No, I’m trained to deal with human misery and I can be reading my chick lit novel, take a shooting call, and then go back to reading. No pause.” Ok, maybe I don’t say it quite like that after all those of us in public safety get accused all the time of being too sarcastic and cynical (define “too”). I do recall one occasion where the incident really got to me.
It was Easter night and I went to work still dressed from going to Easter Mass and having dinner with my husband’s family. The atmosphere felt festive. I was scheduled on one of our hot channels where we dispatched and worked all our emergency calls. Early in the evening a call popped up on my screen, a drowning. It was a six year old boy who had been pulled from his pool. The family was in a panic and he wasn’t responding. Because of the time-sensitive nature of the situation, the police respond, as well as, the fire department. To make a long story short, when the smoke cleared, the child died. My heart ached because I had a son the same age and I just felt things like this, tragedies, should not happen on holidays, especially ones that celebrate life over death. In my state of feeling incredibly sad, I got a call from the fire department dispatcher. I don’t remember why he called but he commented on the little boy stating, “He should have known how to swim.” At that point, I saw red. My son still refused to learn how to swim. I just didn’t like the self-righteous judgment in the dispatcher’s tone. After I hung up, I got a friend to relieve me on the radio. I walked down the hall into the bathroom. My anger soon transformed back into sadness. I cried hard sitting in that bathroom stall. When I think about that night traces of sadness still lingers in my heart and probably will forever.
The more I think about my time as a dispatcher, I realize there are a lot of experiences and stories to share. It was an exciting time and I learned a lot about human emotion, other people’s, as well as, my own. I look forward to John Will’s book coming out, not only because it’s always cool to see my own words in print, but also so I can sneak a glimpse into the experience of other first responders.
About The Author:
Michelle Perin has been a freelance writer since 2000. Her credits include Law Enforcement Technology, Police, Law and Order, Police Times, Beyond the Badge, Michigan State Trooper, Michigan Snowmobiler Magazine and Chief of Police. She writes two columns a month for Officer.com. Michelle worked for the Phoenix (AZ) Police Department for almost eight years. In December 2010, she earned her Master’s degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Indiana State University. Currently, Michelle works as the Administrative Coordinator at Jasper Mountain a residential psychiatric facility for children. In her spare time, she enjoys being the fundraising coordinator for the Lane Area Ferret Shelter & Rescue, playing her bass, working on her young adult novel Desert Ice and raising her two sons in a small town in Oregon.