What It's Like Working As A 911 Dispatcher
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Politics and Activism

Making A Mistake May Lose You Your Job, But As A 911 Dispatcher, If I Make A Mistake, Someone May Lose Their Life

Picking up 911 is answering the unknown.

Making A Mistake May Lose You Your Job, But As A 911 Dispatcher, If I Make A Mistake, Someone May Lose Their Life

When a person calls 911, the first thing they expect is someone to answer their call. Once the call is answered, they expect help to be sent to them. These are the basic tenets of 911. A person calls for help in an emergency and someone comes.

Then there are times when it doesn't work out like it should. Help doesn't get there fast enough. The life-or-death emergency just became a response to a death. The person they spoke to in 911 was their last real contact with the world. The last voice they heard, the one that ushered them into their end.

There is a great burden that lies on each and every 911 call taker. It is up to them to decide within seconds, not minutes if a 911 or non-emergency call is an emergency. Once they decide if it is an emergency it is up to them to decide how much of an emergency it is.

Fortunately this is something they are trained for. They are given the tools to succeed. They are given requirements on what level to prioritize each emergency, just like a triage in an emergency room. They triage each call and send it out in the order of necessity and need.

Calling 911 is a great tool for those who are in a life threatening emergency. It helps the person in need to get direct access to someone who can send them help. The unfortunate part is that 911 is often misused. Accidental dials from cell phones or smartwatches tie up emergency lines in agencies where there may only be one 911 call taker. It is frustrating and difficult for those working the lines. The job now made more difficult by having to field non-emergency calls off of 911.

The non-emergency calls come in with a cat stuck in a tree, or a neighbor playing loud music. While these are important to the person experiencing them they are not as emergent as the woman stuck in the creek, or the multiple car pileup, or the man who just stopped breathing. It is a mental switch that must take place in a moment.

The 911 line rings and the call taker doesn't know what is on the other side. Is it a suicidal caller, a misdial, or a domestic in progress? The only way to find out is to pick up the phone. This one, it was an accidental dial. The call taker breathes a sigh of relief. The line rings again. The last one was an accidental dial, maybe it's the same phone. No such luck. This time it is a domestic with weapons involved and someone is very hurt.

Each second counts and each call counts. It can be exhausting. The constant requirement to be kind even when everyone else is having their worst day and taking it out on the one who picks up the line. The burden and responsibility on a 911 call taker is heavy. It is a constant weight that never goes away. It is the life we choose and every day we must choose to be the calm in the chaos. We are the voice behind the badge, the thin gold line.

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