Being a writer and a former police telecommunications operator, I’m always interested in hearing about other 9-1-1 operator/dispatcher’s experiences on the job. The more I research, the more I find we have so many things in common. From our initial desire to help people (it’s still there even many years later although it’s often covered with a veil of sarcasm) to our nerves that first day on our own to questioning if we’re even making a difference and if we are appreciated to the heart ache of our final radio transmission. Recently I picked a copy of Answering 9-1-1: Life in the Hot Seat by Caroline Burau. She tells of her experience as a telecommunications operator in Minnesota. At many points in her book, I laughed, rolled my eyes, felt sadness and most of all shook my head in agreement. I want to share a few points she touched on which I think many of us can relate to.
It takes a while to feel like you really know what you’re doing in the communications center. In the beginning (actually for quite some time past the beginning), I felt like I didn’t know anything. This was hard for me because I was a confident, independent woman who knew a lot of things. But, when it came to knowing what to say or how to answer things or who to send to a call, I was clueless. The fun thing about the job was that there were plenty of people around me willing to remind me on a daily basis just how clueless I was. Working in this kind of environment, you have to get a thick skin. You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to be green, especially in the beginning. You will continuously be faced with situations you’ve not faced in the past. Nothing is routine-even when it’s routine. Although it’s tough, you have to learn to not take things personally. A snide comment from a co-worker. A supervisor calling out your mistake across the room. An officer’s voice dripping with sarcasm when you dispatch him to a call outside his area. All these things happen. Brush it off and move on.
Low-level Crime Victims are the Worst
These people are more irritable than those that have been victims of high-level or violent crimes. They have had time to ruminate on the wrongs that have befallen them. Nobody validates them. We, as 9-1-1 operators, can be testy and impatient. Officers don’t come rushing to their aid. Often, they are accomplices in their own victimization. They passed out leaving strangers partying in their living room…with their expensive stereo…and laptop…and car keys, for example. They call over and over again, every ten minutes it seems to ask if an officer is going to be there soon. They refuse to have an officer take the report over the phone. They insist on us coming out and taking fingerprints and statements from every neighbor in a three block radius. They get more and more irate each time they call. They won’t let you get a word of explanation in, regardless of the fact you have already explained the process numerous times. With these, by call six or seven, I just let them vent. I click off, knowing I won’t get to talk until the very end anyway and I file my nails.
That One Person you just can’t Please
No matter how well you do your job. No matter how long you’ve been holding down a seat in the communications center. No matter how many emergency calls you have taken or how many pursuits you have worked. It doesn’t matter. There always seems to be that one co-worker who always critiques you, never seems satisfied with the way you handled the call and just seems plain miserable with the intent of bringing you down with her. You can try and crack jokes with her. You can try to be humble. You can try and be confident and loud. It just doesn’t matter. He or she will roll his or her eyes at you. Make snide comments under their breath. You have to just stop second guessing yourself based on their perception of you and realize you are doing your very best and they are just not a nice person. Period.
Sometimes you feel like a Secretary
When I started working as a police telecommunications operator I was positive that every call I took and every crime I dispatched was going to be super exciting and important. I envisioned my career as one where I would be part of a super-hero crime fighting team. What I discovered is that a lot of my time was spent looking things up-an address, information in a previous report, registration information, the time the sun set, etc. I was the queen of the information that allowed officers to complete all the paperwork they have to do (In my police work fantasies, there was never any report writing). At first, all the menial tasks I was asked to do, felt just that-menial. In fact, I often felt down-right irritated. Why couldn’t my officer just run the person himself and read the results (especially when they were running a name like Jose Rodriguez)? After a while, I realized this part of my job was just as important. I stopped feeling like a secretary and started feeling like a personal assistant with a head-set.
Being a 9-1-1 operator/dispatcher has its ups and downs. It is incredibly rewarding and incredibly frustrating. Some days I didn’t know which way was which and many times I just prayed I could keep winging it long enough not to get someone killed. In talking to others who have done this work and also reading their stories, I know I’m not alone. We share similar experiences in this occupation and it’s fun to share them. Thank you readers for continuing to allow me to share mine.
P.S. If you’re looking for a great holiday gift with more tales, consider Women Warriors: Stories from the Thin Blue Line. I have another dispatcher story in there and all proceeds benefit the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF).