I have had the pleasure of being a 911 dispatcher for police, fire and rescue for a little over ten years. I have taken more calls then I could even begin to count; some good, some bad and some just calls you receive on a daily basis. I always tell new hires that the thing I like best about my job is no two days are ever alike. Yes, you get the same old same old calls, the ‘frequent fliers’ but every day holds something different and this is truly a profession that you learn with almost daily.
I feel I am blessed to do this type of work and have been called by some a ‘guardian of the county’- that makes me smile because if I can make a difference in just one caller’s experience then I know why I’ve been placed in this position. While there are many stories and experiences I could share, giving instruction to deliver a baby over the phone, providing instruction for the Heimlich to a dad whose small daughter was choking; I’ve decided on one that touched me the deepest.
Early on in my career I was working a night shift; it had been a fairly calm night when 911 rang and a young man was on the phone advising that his father had just been shot. As I mentioned this was early on in my career but all the training that had been provided for me kicked in and I immediately began my line of questioning and dispatched police and rescue to the scene in between attempting to assess where and why his dad had been shot. I was able to find out that this boy was 16, he and his dad were home when they heard a knock at the door; dad answered the door and was shot. Upon reaching his dad he saw the blood and called me; when I asked where he had been shot he said he thought the shoulder. As I was giving EMD instructions and asking the boy to apply pressure to the wound he told me the bleeding was not stopping, I continued with the instructions and we soon found that he had actually been shot in the chest. Dad was still conscious and was doing his best to talk to his son, he was saying good bye and telling him how sorry he was because all of this was his fault.
This placed me in the middle of an extremely intimate conversation and I felt like I was imposing but I knew there was a possibility the gunman was still in the area, I didn’t know if the boy was safe or what kind of situation I was sending our first responders into so I had to keep asking questions and I had to stay on the line and listen as this man and his son said their final good byes. The first responders had trouble finding the resident, we live in a rural county and this was a good residential area that we don’t normally have to respond to so it was more difficult to locate. Dad was telling his son he was having an affair and the woman’s husband he was seeing was the one that shot him; he said over and over how sorry he was and begged his son to forgive him. The 16 year old boy was crying, begging his dad to hold on, telling him it was okay he forgave him and everything would be okay.
I had to continually interrupt, where were they, could he safely see outside, did he know if the gunman was still in the area, did he hear or see a vehicle? I relayed information to the deputies and my partner in dispatch (we are a small PSAP with normally 2 on shift) trying desperately to get help to them and make sure I wasn’t sending anyone into a dangerous situation where the gunman was still in the area. The call seemed to have lasted an eternity but in reality was only minutes. First responders arrived on scene and the dad was transported to the nearest trauma center via helicopter (another side effect of our rural area).
Upon disconnecting the call a wave of emotion hit me that is hard to explain; I could still hear this family saying their good byes. Shortly after hanging up I found out the victim succumbed to his injuries in flight (this is rare in dispatch as we normally don’t hear the final outcome) and I had to step away from my console and out of the PSAP to regain composure. For weeks I played this call over and over in my head asking myself if I could have done anything differently, hearing the emotional conversation between dad and son over and over again.
I wasn’t traumatized because of the call but I was deeply effected and I desperately needed to know that I had done everything I could have done to help this family. My manager saw me struggling and stepped in; she and the first responding deputy listened to the recording and we all sat down together to go over the call and what took place. of course there were learning points (as there always will be) but both assured me there was nothing more anyone could have done that would have saved this man’s life.
Obviously I still think of this call, it’s the one that came to mind when I decided to participate in “Tell Us Your Story” but I choose this story to hopefully help other dispatchers too. You see there will be that one call that “gets to you”, the call that “haunts” you, the call you can’t seem to forget. Because we are human we have to realize when this happens it may not be something that we can get past on our own. Speak to your manager, your supervisor, your fellow co-workers and if necessary seek out help from a crisis intervention team and talk about the call. Learn and grow from that difficult call so the next time you pick up that 911 line you are at your best and can be a true guardian to your community.