That’s What We Do

Christine C Acosta, Director, Heard County 911

I have been working for our agency for 28 years. I started part time and worked my way to Director in 6 years. We are a very small county, everyone knows everyone else so almost each call has the possibility of involving someone you know, or someone you love. I would like to say that at some point a communications officer could become jaded to some of the calls we get but here is where the issue is, we are invested in what we do, whether in a small county or a large city. We can sometimes seem to be on autopilot but in reality, our brains, and our hearts are in overdrive on almost every call.

The amount of multi-tasking expended to complete a call properly, where the caller or person referenced in the call is assisted to the best of our abilities from our seats in a closed off room, usually with no windows and certainly without a crystal ball to know exactly what is going on, is nearly indescribable. On a major call, not only are we sending first responders, we are doing all the background work that no one sees. Verifying locations, trying to resolve a dispute on a physical or verbal dispute, consoling a loved one that has discovered the worst imaginable and they’ve lost a spouse of 50 years or a child to suicide, getting helicopters on standby or in the air for medical emergencies, sometimes notifying a relative of a loved one involved in an accident and hearing the anguish and fear in their voices as they think the worst and doing our best to keep them calm as we relay the information they need to know to get to their loved one’s side without being our next call. Getting the state police en route, as well as DOT and sometimes a mutual aid ambulance for a traffic accident, all the while keeping up with our own responders and trying to ensure they have what they need, run a tag, a driver’s license or worst of all call the coroner.

Our citizens are our first priority and they call us on the worst day of their lives. It’s our job to try to take some of that stress and grief from them and in the end sometimes it becomes ours. Once a call is dispatched, then our priority is divided between our caller and our responder. Their safety is a prime concern as well. We know the dangers they face on every call they go on; it’s on the news almost every day, but we’ve known it for years.

We’ve all had “those” calls we never forget. The very first phone call I took as a Sheriff’s Department dispatcher, before we started our 911 agency, was from a woman telling me I needed to “get a jail cell ready” because she was going to “kill someone”. I’m not kidding! I literally threw the phone at my trainer because I was terrified. My trainer took the phone, talked with the caller and I saw the look on her face and heard her words and discovered this was a frequent caller that was upset with her kids because they woke her up from a nap. That was my introduction to dispatching. I’d love to say every call I’ve taken since then was as simple but I can’t.

After we had started our 911 center and addresses started showing up on our screen, more and more I was involved in calls with my neighbors, my friends, even my co workers, then worst of all, my own family. My daughter and her husband were staying at my home with their newborn baby girl, seems everyone in the house had the flu and my granddaughter was a very restless baby. I left for work one morning when she was three weeks old thinking about the fact I had not been woken by the baby crying during the night and thought finally she reached a point she was sleeping better. I had been at work only about an hour and a 911 call came in that I answered — and my home address was on the screen with my son-in-law screaming that the baby wasn’t breathing. I could hear my daughter crying in the background. I helped dispatch responders before I hit the door running but it was too late. She had passed away during the night. She was buried on Christmas Eve. My daughter worked as a 911 dispatcher for our agency as well at the time and she worked her shift on Christmas Day, the day after she buried her baby girl. She didn’t want to inconvenience someone to miss out on Christmas Day with their kids even though she technically was on maternity leave anyway, but she knew she could make a difference and felt that she could remove herself from the situation by doing what she was trained and proficient to do.

This is what we do, we get deeply involved in our work while trying our best to not let reality sink in.. build a fence around our soul, try not to take the calls home with us, but it’s much easier said than done. It was a very long time before I could answer the 911 lines with my eyes open until I heard a voice on the line that wasn’t my son-in-law but eventually that passed.

Another call I answered that had me standing and ready to do all I could for a successful outcome was from a suicidal caller. I talked with him while another dispatcher had Law Enforcement en route. He didn’t want to listen to anything I said so I worked very hard to let him know it was safe to talk to me and keep him talking, the whole time praying that the gun I heard him cock next to the phone would not go off. He explained he had been arrested the day before and his wife left him because of it and he didn’t want to go back to jail. I was able to keep him talking and almost had him calmed down and believing there is a day after tomorrow and things get better when our officer got to the scene and everything started going downhill from there because the officer that arrived on scene was the same officer that had him arrested him the day before. He went into a rage then and swore he was going to kill my officer then himself. Everything around me in the 911 center disappeared, my only concern was my officer and this caller with a loaded and cocked gun ready to do what he had planned. Talking became my only asset I had to prevent a tragedy that I wasn’t sure I would be able to recover from. Our ability to multitask came in to play in a big way that day, I felt I was alone with the caller and my officer but also knew in my mind that in the background, my co workers had everything else under control and were allowing me to do what I had to do and that was talk this man out of what he felt was his only recourse to solve his problems. In the end, things did turn out for the best that day.

There have been many other days that things didn’t go so well. We got a call from a witness that saw one of our officers get hit almost head on by a texting and driving driver; we lost that officer to something so preventable. It’s so frustrating when we take calls like that and it hurts the most when it’s someone we are so close to in our little corner of the world.

We are the “unseen heroes” even when we can’t save every caller or one of their loved ones or one of our own. We sure don’t see our selves as heroes, we only see ourselves as doing the job we are trained to do and do it despite the hours, the low pay, the missed holidays with our families, or the snow storms I spend the night on an air mattress in my office to keep on top of things or fill in for a dispatcher that can’t make it in due to the weather. We are a team, we are a family. We do what we can to make a difference and sometimes, once in awhile, we do get to feel like a hero.

Like the day I took a call from a grandmother that had custody of her granddaughter that was autistic. She was having trouble with the little girl not wanting to take her medicine and she was unruly. The grandmother wanted an officer but was concerned because having an officer come out before it had caused more problems than it solved. I happen to have a daughter on the spectrum so I allowed my personal experiences to kick in and I asked her if I could talk with the little girl. She put her on the phone and I was able to calm the child down. She wanted to know if she was going to jail so I had to ask her the hard questions — was she going to hurt herself or did she want to hurt someone and she promised me she wasn’t. I was able to reassure her that she wasn’t going to jail and then I was able to ask her about her medicine, if it made her feel better or worse. She said it made her feel better so I asked her if she would take the medicine for me while I was on the phone then we could tell the officer that every thing was OK and he would go take other calls after he checked on her. She promised, I asked her to lay the phone down and tell her grandmother she wanted to take her medicine and come back and tell me she took it. She did everything I asked of her, I told her that her grandmother loved her and only wanted the best for her and I asked her to go hug her grandmother and tell her she loved her. I heard her do so over the phone. I had tears in my eyes as the grandmother came to the phone and thanked me for everything I did and after the officer checked to make sure the situation was resolved, I even got a “good job, dispatch” over the radio. Yes, that day I did kind of feel like there was a cape attached to my uniform for a little while. Then I took the next call and carried on from there. That’s what we do.