A few years ago I took a career detour as a 9-1-1 dispatcher. Sometimes it startles people when they hear me say my job as a newspaper reporter gives me more stress than I had as a dispatcher.
I joined a team of dispatchers at comm center tasked with watching over the 50,000-some residents of the county in which I lived and worked.
I was a bit crap at it.
Here’s what you’ll find in a small to middling county dispatch center. You enter a dim room lit with fluorescents, a few dozen computer screens and smelling of the industrial cleaners that keep the place from stinking of the butts that sit in chairs for eight, 12, 16 and sometimes 24 hours a day before swapping out for the next person on duty. Every station looks like the bridge of the Enterprise. The monitors show touch-screen buttons that correspond to fire companies, broadcast towers, special operations channels and the regional crime and motor vehicle databases that seem never to get along with one another.
When you pass a written test and interview, you land in a two-week cram course. You learn the hierarchy of urgency in calls. You learn so many abbreviations. Flu-like symptoms is MEDPRO. Difficulty breathing is DIB. Difficulty breathing and chest pains is POSCAR. You take a road trip through the county you watch over and serve. You memorize landmarks.
We were told the exact location of a house where piles of hubcaps used to sit, but no longer. People in the area used that house as a landmark and still remember it. If a caller couldn’t give an exact address on that road, we could ask, “is it before or after the old hubcap house?” to zero in on them.
We had two weeks to learn the “house rules” of the county, then we went into the shark tank.
I learned that most medical calls were a breeze. The caller’s emergency, you’re taught, is not your own. You take from them their location and emergency and give them a calm voice and a promise. You tell the ambulances and fire trucks where to go and keep track of where they are and what they say.
When I say I was crap at my job, I don’t mean that I sent fire trucks to the wrong address or let someone get stabbed to death. A functioning dispatch center won’t allow its members to fail. If a new employee is faltering or if a call gets huge or out of control, everybody pitches in to get emergency workers where they need to be with the information they need to know.
What I mean is this: I came to the job without the basic confidence I needed to carry out my work. Some of it came down to the layout of Marion County’s emergency response system. As of four years ago, a map of the county’s areas of fire company territory looked like a gerrymandered mess. Monongah Volunteer Fire Company handled Monongah… except for Monongah Road, which belonged to the city of Fairmont’s firefighters all the way out to the NASA building.
Near as I can tell, one of the stipulations of NASA setting up shop was 24-hour coverage by paid firefighters. So the city fire department drew a little drinking straw down Monongah Road from city limits to the NASA building, miles away.
So: if your car catches on fire in your driveway in Monongah, you call the Monongah volunteer firefighters. If your car catches on fire and rolls out into Monongah Road, then it’s the city’s problem.
There are all kinds of jacked-up rules and exceptions like this. It wasn’t fair and it wasn’t sane, but it was my job to make sanity out of it. I burst into tears once when my supervisor quizzed me on some of these geographical quirks. The obvious answer never seemed to be the correct one.
I fixed that problem with flash cards and memorization. The problem of confidence took longer to solve.
The truth is you have to be rude to people as a dispatcher.
“What is your emergency?”
“Well, two weeks ago, I had a fall and went to the hospital-”
“No,” I learned to say. “What is your emergency right now?”
I had to learn to speak from a position of authority. My first few calls were as cringe-inducing as my first interviews as a cub reporter. You can’t soft-sell a 9-1-1 call. You can’t sound bored and robotic, but neither can you simper at the caller, like I did.
“Don’t worry,” I would croon, taking the tone of voice you’d use with a crying child. “You’re going to be all right. Just stay calm and I’ll send you help.”
I know you can’t breathe right now, but if you’re very calm, the ambulance will come and we’ll get some ice cream at the Dairy Creme Corner. Would you like that, buddy?
I had to learn to be calm, brisk and firm. Callers want help, not grief counseling. After a few weeks I figured it out.
The radio took longer. I was crap lousy on the radio. The only way to get better at talking on the radio is to talk on the radio. The only way out is through.
I blew raspberries when I got tongue-tied. I laughed on the air a few times. I said things that made no earthly sense.
“Medic 32, you are responding to a 55-year-old male, complaining of unresponsiveness.”
I heard the words tumble out of my throat before I could stop them. How do you complain that you aren’t responsive? “9-1-1, please help! I’m unconscious!”
Every firefighter, deputy, public safety reporter and bored citizen with a scanner could hear my screw-ups. And brother did they let me know about it. Once I toned out Rivesville’s fire department for an emergency by mistake. This becomes hilarious when you understand that 1) Rivesville has big fire sirens that blast when a fire call goes out, 2) I toned them by mistake after midnight, and 3) the Rivesville fire chief happened to work as my supervisor.
I got my butt blistered for that one, I promise.
One of my coworkers spat dipping tobacco into a Mountain Dew bottle. (I’m being charitable here. Almost all the men in the dispatch center did dip in the office. But I’m talking about one in particular.) I have no idea how he passed the spelling test to get the job, because he was terrible at it. It’s hard to imagine someone less like me than this guy.
But he had what counted: a level head and confidence in his work. If I had stayed at that dispatch center for five years, I don’t know that I could have done the job as well as he did. So when he talked, I listened. I called him “sir,” which embarrassed him on account of him being nearly 10 years my junior.
After one bad night of fumbling on the radio, I apologized to him and asked him how he put up with me.
“Because you’re willing to learn,” he told me.
So I learned as best as I could. I studied maps. I listened in on other calls. I drilled with flash cards until I knew the street address of every gas station in the county. I wasn’t born to work as a 9-1-1 dispatcher, but that was what Marion County paid me to do so by God I was going to figure out how to do it.
Week by week, my timidity on the radio disappeared. One day, all the drills and screw-ups paid off: I took a call from a man suffering from a heart attack on the side of a road. He couldn’t tell me where, exactly, because he couldn’t read. But he told me the closest landmark. I just happened to remember where that was, and got him the help he needed.
That call was one of two moments in my professional career on which I can look back with fierce pride. (The other is when I refused an invitation to speak on the Nancy Grace show, but that’s a story for another day.)
I didn’t last at the dispatch center. The pay was for crap – about $21,000 per year. I saw an opportunity out and I took it, moving to Virginia. But I’m glad I had the opportunity to do a high-stress job that wasn’t a good fit for me. There’s value in learning from mistakes. When you see your weaknesses, you can prod and poke them until they toughen up. You become more rounded, competent, confident.
It’s true that dispatching gave me less stress than my career in print news. But it took me a long time and lots of little, embarrassing screw-ups to get to a basic level of competency. It’s an experience I’m glad I had. You know, in retrospect.
Seriously, though, sorry about that one time, Rivesville. That was my bad.