In a few days I hit my 10-year anniversary at my job.
At the age of 21 I had just moved back home to change colleges and majors. I immediately started working at a local Factory and after a year of busting my butt with very little pay I decided it was time to start looking elsewhere. One afternoon in November my mom called me and suggested I apply for the communications officer job that was posted in the local paper. I had recently switched my major to criminal justice so I thought this could be a good fit, anyone could do it, it’s just answering the phone right?
With zero experience, but a decent work history I got an interview and it seemed to go fairly well. I was extremely nervous but again it’s just answering the phone.
After my interview they had me take a spelling test and basic knowledge test with a little math thrown in there. Pretty sure I nailed the math portion and the common sense scenario portion but I can laugh at myself now and admit that I misspelled the word sheriff. I mean come on, I think everyone who doesn’t work at a sheriff’s office spells it with two r’s and one f, at least I tell myself that to make myself feel better.
Aside from my inability to spell, I was offered the job. I was over-the-moon excited to leave my mundane factory job and finally dip my toes into law enforcement profession.
Training started and I knew there was so much more to this job than just answering the phone. How much more I didn’t exactly know but even after 10 years I’m still finding out how much more.
After 6 weeks I was finally ‘thrown to the wolves.’ At least that’s what everyone referred to finally being allowed to work on your own. It’s kind of a sink or swim scenario where you’re treading water and every shift someone throws you a flotation device but you can never quite reach it. You kinda just wait for something to happen. Am I going to lightly tread at the edge or will I be drowning, who knows. The sheriff’s office that I work at is a one-man Dispatch Center, meaning you are on your own, there’s no partner to help you when 3 phone lines ring and no one to bounce an idea off of or ask a question. Multitasking is a must.
I remember my first 911 call I handled on my own. As soon as you hear that ring you get a feeling in your stomach that never goes away, even after 10 years. You never know what to expect. It could be someone calling 911 to ask for a phone number, hello….GOOGLE, or it could be someone placing the last call they’ll ever make. I promise that feeling when the phone rings never goes away.
The first night I was on my own I handled a structure fire at an apartment building. Luckily it was a minor fire everyone was okay and everything went smoothly. I went home the next morning feeling like I could handle anything and so far that’s been mostly true. In my 10 years I’ve been able to handle every call that has come in but I’ll admit some stick with me much longer than others.
As I sit back and remember some of the calls I’ve taken there are few that stick out. I won’t go into specifics but I’ll give you the general idea. I’ve worked first shift, afternoons, overnights, you name it I’ve worked it. Working day shift sounds easy but it can be one of the harder shifts. You start to feel like a secretary and then boom, the bottom falls out. It never fails, Saturday morning shortly after arriving at work 911 would ring and my caller would be a wife who had just lost her husband. Waking up and finding him lifeless next to her after many years together. What do you say to someone who you don’t know but you already care so much about? How do you comfort someone like that? It’s part of the job and you just do it.
I remember One Summer Night answering 911 with a sister screaming that her brother had gone under the water and had not resurfaced near one of the boat landings. In a panic she couldn’t tell me what river or even what town they were near.
There are calls that hit home even harder. One in particular was the worst for me. I had recently returned to work after maternity leave and by this time my daughter was about 3 months old. One afternoon 911 rang just like any other day and on the other end was a mother screaming for help for her three-month-old daughter who wasn’t breathing. She found her under a pillow in their bed. For a second I felt the same fear as her but I ignored it and started instructions to start CPR. Luckily baby started to breathe when she laid her flat on her back. The ambulance in this small town is amazing, and was very quick to arrive on scene. As soon as they called out on scene I disconnected from the call and immediately began to cry. To this day anytime I handle a call involving a child I immediately think about that call. Fortunately that call had a good ending but many do not.
Not only do you have to handle situations involving callers and their needs as a dispatcher you’re responsible for your co-workers as well, meaning the officers. Every shift you have one goal everyone goes home safely. At our Sheriff’s Office we still use 10 codes basically a shortened version or talk for the officers to let you know what’s going on. Your standard 10-4 is the most used obviously. The one 10 code that no dispatcher wants to hear is 10-78. Where I work this means the officer is in need of assistance and by “in need of assistance” this means get me someone here now the shit has hit the fan. We are a small office so our officers only use this when absolutely necessary. It’s not something you hear often so when you do hear it your heart skips a few beats, the adrenaline kicks in, and you do everything in your power to get everyone available to that officer. Seconds turn into hours and minutes turn into days. Every status check feels like an eternity. These aren’t just co-workers they’re friends. They’re someone’s husband or wife. They’re someone’s mom or dad. If answering 911 doesn’t get your heart racing, hearing a friend call for help definitely will. Especially when you feel helpless because you can’t run to help them. You have to stay in your chair and wait. Ask any dispatcher. The mind goes to the extreme every time. Thankfully I haven’t had to deal with anything beyond a person resisting or fighting but I have sat back and listened to close-by agencies deal with horrible situations and heard the professional yet scared voice of the dispatcher asking for help.
Not everything about the job is sad or scary. There are so many moments of fun, laughter, and enjoyment. Sending deputies to hunt down a llama that’s running in and out of traffic definitely puts a smile on everyone’s face. Serious calls that have positive endings where you can just look back, be proud of what you contributed, take a deep breath, and smile. Having someone call back to tell you thank you or getting a card in the mail from a thankful family who can hug their grandpa again.
10 years may not seem long to some but in a profession with serious burnout issues and an average employee lasting 2 years or less, 10 years is something to be proud of.
For people new to the job: this job isn’t for everyone and if you feel like it’s not for you you’re probably right. Harsh but true.
For people one year in and wanting to quit: Focus on all of the good and don’t be afraid to talk about the bad.
To people calling in: We aren’t just the secretary answering the phone. We are trained professionals. We might sound slightly annoyed when you start your call off with, “Well this isn’t really an emergency but…” believe me deep down we are happy to handle your non-emergent call.
And to the Officer reading this: Yes you annoy us, but we care about you more than you know.
Here’s to another 10.