9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Monday, May 4, 2009

We Are the Sum Total of Our Experiences

Taken from "Notes From the Trenches" June 1999
Written by Linda Olmstead

The calls we take, the incidents we handle, the skills we develop, the tasks we conquer; all those bits and pieces plus everything in our personal lives makes us the person - and the dispatcher - who strives to do the best we can each day.

Right now, there's a dispatcher somewhere, re-living an incident she handled in 1984. I know this because we discussed it on-line in the Dispatch Chat session I host on America On-Line. It was prior to any Critical Incident Debriefing programs, so she's carried it around inside for years and years.

Not only does it dredge up "my own stuff," but I think of the staff at my comm center, where there's a young (in age and in time on the job) Communications Operator who handled a critical incident only a few months ago: the shooting of one of our sergeants on a routine traffic stop.

We're luckier, nowadays - some of us - because we had a Critical Incident Debriefing session a day or two later. But I know it's never going to go away and she tightens up inside every time a unit takes a while to respond when she makes a status check.

Yes, I know you needn't have experienced something that drastic to feel anxiety when a unit doesn't respond right away but that's now a unique part of her, and who she will be as she becomes a veteran dispatcher throughout her career.

Several months previous to her experience, one of her partners worked a critical incident in which two officers were badly injured in a collision enroute to one of their calls. We didn't handle that one as well (we, the management) and that bothers me. It bothers the dispatcher, too. Just a couple of weeks ago, she mentioned it had been a year since their accident and I wanted to hug her and apologize for my part in having that incident - and the emotional fallout - become a part of her experience.

New Kids

I've been in the public safety communications field since 1977. I could, if my emotional make-up was wired that way, feel resentment over how much has changed and how the new kids in the centers "get" better training than I did, how working conditions have changed (mostly for the better) and how well, like how I had to use an honest-to-God teletype machine instead of a computer to access criminal justice files, how we had to learn all the arcane access codes - no pre-formatted masks for us! - and how I had to practically shout really loud out the windows to call my units because it was long before radios were even invented. You get the drift (grin). I walked uphill both ways to work, too.

But that would belittle the accomplishments to these talented young dispatchers and serve no earthly purpose of any value to anyone - and least of all to me. I'm here to assist them, not discount their experiences.

And it's one reason why I love to work in the CommCenter with 'em. My "war stories" give me a chance to validate my own reality and pass the time when we're not all tied up in some incident or another. So much of what I did is certainly an opportunity to laugh more than marvel at my repertoire of events long past. Working a console alongside 'em also keeps my skills fresh - and adds new ones, I love that!

Events in our personal lives - on a day to day basis - are also pieces of the puzzle encompassing our personae. We used to think - and pronounce, at regular intervals - "You can't bring your personal life to work with you" or "Leave your personal problems outside the door of the comm center when you get to work." Geez. We could stumble over all that stuff on the threshold, ya know? (sigh)

Humanistic management now realizes that you can't shut that stuff off and still be a whole person. I don't know about other supervisors, but I sure don't want parital human beings working for me! No, it's true you don't have the luxury of dwelling on any incident to the exclusion of current events you're handling right now, let me explain further.

Moms & Dads

Parents bring their cares and concerns about kids to work with them. I don't happen to have children, and so I know some calls could be handled so much more skillfully and with a certain touch that I cannot demonstrate, if one of the dispatchers with kids were behind the helm. Moms and dads have extrasensory hackles that rise at the hints of evidence I might never recognize. I grew up in an abusive family situation with an alcoholic parent who raged out of control now and then. This gives me an advantage over some other folks who haven't experienced that in their youth.

I happen to know that pet-lovers take home strays encountered through the performance of their jobs - and with the cooperation of field units who sneakily bring 'em into the comm centers "until Animal Control can pick them up." That's how my house has filled up with four-legged residents over the years. (grin) I also know I'm not alone in this behavior.

Personal Life

Not too long ago, one of the dispatchers had a serious situation arise at home while she was on duty; we managed to get someone to come in to work for her (me) so she could go home and attend to the matter. She wouldn't have had her full attention centered on the public and our officers and it wasn't fair to make her shove her personal life to the side just to get the job done here in the Comm Center.

What I found interesting was the fact that this was a decision made in my absence by an administrator; usually it's either me or my partner Comm Sup who, while on duty, discovers a situation like this and handles it. I was very glad he called me at home - he was as concerned for her welfare as he was cognizant that the job needed to be handled by someone better able to pay more attention to it. (I guess I have underestimated some of the brass. Due to "past practices.")

Nobody should simply expect their dispatchers to "buck up, buckaroo." Nobody should expect their officers to do so, either! Our commander shared the story with my shift one night of the sergeant who told him, many years ago, when he was just a "young pup road dog" to "suck it up" after he'd shot and killed someone. He still has dreams of that incident, reliving it now and then.

Now, that doesn't mean any of us should keep that emotional baggage open and ready for boogie-men to leap out and wrest control while we do our dangest dealing with peoples' tragedies over the phone and the coordination of units on the radio. That's simply counter-productive.

Blinking Light

A trainee of my acquaintance once answered a 911 call to hear a man shouting, "We've just been robbed!!" She quickly told the caller, "We're on our way!" and hung up, turning to the radio and alerting units on one of the user agency channels in a very officious manner, "Units, we have a robbery just occurred."

My jaw dropped. Before I could formulate a coherent "training suggestion," one quick-thinking unit transmitted, "Uhhhh. Center. Where??!?" She looked at the blinking console light representing that channel, looked right at the phone handset sitting back on the hook where she'd placed it and then turned to me, dumbstruck. Thank goodness the victim called right back so we could complete the interrogation process.

The trainee and I had a fairly lengthy discussion after we determined the incident was a "cold" burglary and we got the appropriate beat unit dispatched. That was an example of someone without any relevant articles in her tidy little Samsonite carryall of experience.

Our individual baggage sometimes causes us to make faulty assumptions instead of the often-valuable intuitive leaps of understanding necessary to take an appropriate action.

Overturned What?

Then there are the simple errors of "huh?" that happen. Ya think you heard what the caller said, but you got it wrong - through a combination of background noise, poor connection, or simply another one of those life experiences (or assumptions of the worst kind). One night we had reports of "an overturned train." Turned out to be one of those "sounds like; one syllable" charade situations: a big ole crane fell over. (Not the kind with wings and a beak that usually stand on one leg in the slough, though.)

Anyway! A big ole construction crane fell over on the railroad tracks (well off the highway) along our gorgeous Big Sur coastline. Cellular coverage in that area is spotty, at best. Our caller was excited and he made reference to the railroad tracks, where this "sounds like 'train'" fell over... I'm not sure whether we were relieved or disappointed to discover we hadn't had any trains overturn on their tracks but I bet Union/Southern/Western/whoever-they-are-now Pacific breathed huge sighs of relief. Then, about two hours later, an officer on the other radio mis-heard the dispatcher when she said, "Taggers" and thought he was being dispatched to tigers on the overpass.

The Baggage

You see, one of the abilities to deal with all the baggage we've collected is to make light of it; sometimes we use pretty sick humor to get around something dreadful. And we often use a mixture of commonly used "industry terms" to push the envelope of humor. Officers use a phrase fairly regularly, and often (ahem) wryly: "Dissipate with traffic." It's generally (and appropriately) used when there's something on the roadway that doesn't need to have anyone respond to remove it; styrofoam beads, small pieces of wood from pallets, feathers, small amounts of produce fallen off trucks, etc.

Small wildlife carcasses often fit the bill, i.e., snakes, birds, opossums, and sadly, smushed cats. now and then, a beleaguered officer responding to a traffic hazard from the office where he/she's got reports stacked up to here to complete will mutter "Oh, let it dissipate with traffic" regardless of the type of hazard. Sometimes, when we get reports of intoxicated subjects walking on the roadway in a very remote area, we quip that we need to get a unit there before the party begins to dissipate with traffic. (cringe)

It's not unlike that tendency of those of us in this Biz to label dead animals as: Flat Cat, Pizza Kitty, Frisbee Possum, Sail Cat and other such gross terms for "road kill." Again, just a macabre method of getting one's feelings around a common occurrence without aching with the reality every time.

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