Written by Chris Rickert
Sue Buechner still remembers the suicidal man's name: Roosevelt.
He was in his 20s and had barricaded himself in a bathroom at his mother's house with a gun when his frantic family called 911.
Buechner - who was new to her job with DU-COMM, a 911 dispatch center serving several communities in DuPage County, Ill. - instructed the family to keep the line open as they tried to calm the man, without success.
"Six weeks on the job, I was listening as a guy committed suicide," she said. "I figured if I was going to quit, I would have done it then."
Sometimes having to rely on distraught or less-than-forthcoming callers to determine the seriousness of a situation, police and fire dispatchers are responsible for making initial assessments of sometimes chaotic calls and getting the necessary help - police, firefighters, paramedics - to the scene as soon as possible. They are often the first line of help in an emergency, even if their work is largely invisible to the public.
But two highly publicized incidents this summer have put dispatchers' work - and its stress-inducing nature - in the spotlight:
- On Independence Day, dispatchers with Dane County and Middleton Police used sophisticated cell-phone signal tracking techniques to locate a pickup that had been driven off a cliff and into a quarry, killing a 22-year-old man and injuring five others in their early 20s;
- And on July 15th, a reportedly suicidal man was shot by police after he brandished what turned out to be a pellet gun at them. Information relayed to the 911 center moments before he died indicated the gun was not real.
"I think there is a big information gap in the criticality in a 911 call taker," said Wanda McCarley, president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials, or APCO. "Dispatcher is one of the most stressful jobs out there."
"Don't Hang Up On Me"
The six young adults in the pickup truck that went over the edge of the Yahara Materials Meinholz Quarry, falling some 70 feet, went there to set off fireworks.
The driver of the truck died in the crash and five others were hurt, some critically. Buechner, who took the initial 911 call, didn't know that at the time. First, she had to contend with a bad cell connection and an upset young man trying to tell her where they were and how badly he and his friends were hurt.
"We went off the quarry. There's people trapped in the vehicle. I need help, please!" the teen tells Buechner, who joined the Middleton Police Department 2 1/2 years ago and has been a dispatcher for about 6 1/2 years.
Per Middleton's operating protocol, Buechner tried to transfer the call to Dane County, which would dispatch rescue workers, but the cell signal was lost.
She called back and got a busy signal, then tried again, got through and questioned the caller more specifically about where they are and what happened. But the line went dead again.
Buechner was trying to call back a third time when the man called from a different cell phone. In the background, people could be heard yelling.
"Hello," the caller said. "Don't hang up on me!"
Listening to the Tape
"I still remember a lot of bad calls," Buechner said recently. But she generally doesn't like to listen to recordings of them after they're over. They can be very emotional, she said.
She did listen to the July 4th recordings again, and knows she and the emergency workers on the scene did everything they could - were, in fact, able to rescue five people from a crash that could have turned out much worse.
Middleton police officer David Kasdorf, who was one of the first to arrive at the scene, echoed that sentiment and said emergency responders rely heavily on dispatchers to tell them where to go when the call is coming from such a remote location. In this case, the cell tower the 911 call was routed through was near another quarry, and authorities briefly thought the crash was there.
"It's amazing that anybody came out alive," he said.
Buechner regrets one thing she didn't say during the call--an omission the average listener most likely wouldn't notice.
"At some point he said, 'Don't hang up,'"she said, but she didn't respond. She realized later that at the time, there was other radio traffic she had to handle.
Still, she thinks, "My God, why didn't I say something to comfort him?"
Could Have Done Differently
Crystal Daley, a dispatcher with the Dane County 911 center, also thinks about the thing she could have done differently during a call from the ex-wife of the man Madison police shot to death on Camden Road on July 15th.
Ronald Brandon, 48, called 911 that day and calmly reported a man wielding a gun. It turned out Brandon was the man, and when police got there, police say he made a threatening gesture with his weapon - later found to be a pellet gun - and police shot and killed him.
Investigators believe Brandon's death was a case of "suicide by cop" and have said police and dispatchers handled the incident properly.
In an approximately three-minute 911 call, Brandon's ex-wife, Susan, told Daley that Brandon made the call from her home and that the gun was a pellet gun. Daley typed the information into the computer system and relayed it to other dispatchers, who then relayed it to police.
But the information got to officers too late.
After Ronald Brandon was shot and as Susan Brandon screamed and cried over the phone, Daley explained to her, "Regardless of what kind of gun he had, he must have brandished it at the officer."
She meant it as a way to give a distraught woman some information about what had just happened, Daley said. But, "whether it was the truth, it just wasn't a nice thing to say to a family member...I could have just been like, 'I'm sorry this happened.'"
District Attorney Brian Blanchard has said that even if officers had been told of the report that the gun was a pellet gun, there's no guarantee the information would have changed the outcome because it wouldn't have been clear at the time which of the two callers was the more credible.
Still, Daley said the Susan Brandon call was "probably one of the worst calls I've ever taken."
"Hope to never get it again," she said.
Several dispatchers interviewed for this story said one of the consistently stressful things about their job is knowing just about everything that's going on at a scene but not being able to take a more direct role in doing something about it.
"Sometimes they feel kind of helpless," said Middleton Police Lt. Noel Kakuske.
That can be especially true when the dispatcher has experience as a firefighter, paramedic or some other emergency worker, as many do.
Then there's the second-guessing. Like Buechner and Daley, Sauk County dispatcher Mary Bellis initially worried she hadn't done enough to try to save the life of Weston High School principal John Klang, who was shot to death last year by student Eric Hainstock. Bellis took the first 911 call about the shooting.
"I had a lot of guilt for a while...thinking there was something I could have done to help the principal," she said. Looking back now, she said she knows she did everything she could.
Not knowing the outcome of a call can be "frustrating" as well, said Paul Logan, a 14-year Dane County dispatcher and president of the state APCO chapter.
Many also said incidents involving children are particularly difficult.
Dealing With The Stress
To help cope with these and other stressors, emergency services departments hold "debriefings" after particularly serious incidents.
The sessions are a way for all the people involved in an incident to find out what the others were doing, but also serve as forums for mutual support.
For Buechner, a debriefing on the quarry crash allowed her to see it from a "different perspective." She realized that while the incident was tragic, rescue workers were still able to save the lives of five people.
After the Brandon shooting, Daley was part of a debriefing session with police and others involved. Two counselors were also brought in to speak with the workers, she said.
"It's nice to have all the pieces put together," Daley said. The Dane County 911 center also held a session for its employees after the incident, kind of a "team-building" session, she said.
A sense of closure can be key, too, in relieving some of the stress of the job. Logan said dispatchers sometimes follow up with police or others to find out what happened with memorable calls.
Nearly three years after leaving his position as a dispatcher with Dane County, Dan Dyer said talking about the Red Caboose Day Care shooting on March 9, 2004, still stirs us some of the feelings of stress he experienced in 25 years on the job.
That incident, in which police shot to death a mentally deranged man wielding a knife at a day-care center, was one of the most serious calls he handled, he said.
He left to take a position in the county treasurer's office in part to get away from the stress of being a dispatcher.
Turnover among dispatchers has traditionally been high, according to McCarley.
At Dane County 911, the county's largest dispatch center - with about 511,000 incoming calls a year, including 174,000 911 calls - it's been running between 15 percent and 17 percent annually, according to Chas Klauer, a communications supervisor there.
But the stress of dealing with difficult calls isn't the overriding reason people leave, he said: Some simply don't know what they're getting into with a job that requires alot of night and holiday work and a workload that can vary significantly from one day to the next.
As McCarley put it, "It takes a lot of courage to stay in your chair...during some of the situations that they encounter."