In her new book, Tell Me Exactly What Happened, veteran 911 operator Caroline Burau shares her on-the-job experiences at both a single-person call center (complicated by a public walk-up window) and a ground and air ambulance service.
We asked Caroline more about the changes in the 911 dispatch community and the specific challenges dispatchers face.
Meet Caroline at the book launch celebration for Tell Me Exactly What Happened on Thursday, September 8, 2016, at 7:00 pm at Common Good Books in St. Paul.
I worked at Ramsey County for two years, then another two years at White Bear Police Department. Tell Me Exactly What Happened starts with my first year at White Bear, and ends after eight years as a medical dispatcher at an ambulance company.
Answering 911 is about the shock and awe I experienced as a rookie dispatcher, and Tell Me Exactly What Happened is about what happens after the awe wears off and what was once shocking becomes routine. It’s about how the things that may make you a great dispatcher may make you a really annoying parent or a distant spouse. It’s about losing people you care about to the job. It’s about losing people you will never meet. It’s also about the people you are sitting next to when these things happen, and how they become like siblings in a strange, macabre, sleep-deprived second family.
And in between those things, it’s also about all the strange new things I or my partners heard on the phone since my first book was written. In ten years, they do pile up.
How has the profession changed in the past several years?
Cell phones have changed things a lot, and not for the better when it comes to 911. It used to be that when a call came in from a traditional “land line,” the dispatcher could see an exact address plus an apartment or suite number. But more and more people are dropping their landlines and only using cell phones. The technology exists to pinpoint a cell caller as accurately as a landline does, but most departments don’t have that technology yet, and their budgets won’t allow it. I actually just visited a 911 center that didn’t even have computer-aided dispatch yet. I couldn’t believe it. The dispatcher wrote all calls, addresses, and every other detail down in a notebook. A notebook.
When I think about change in dispatching, I get stuck more on what needs to change, really. Dispatchers need more and better training. In Minnesota there isn’t even a 911 dispatcher cert course anymore. Most training happens on the job under huge time constraints and is very “catch as catch can.”
I’d also like to see dispatchers get reliable emotional support for what they go through day to day. Because of the culture in emergency services and also because of short-staffing, most dispatchers don’t get any relief after a traumatic call. Someone who has just dispatched an officer-involved shooting scene shouldn’t have to stay in the seat and keep working, for example, but it happens all the time. Dispatchers need the opportunity to step away and talk to someone after a terrible call. And they shouldn’t have to ask for it. It should just be the way things are done.
I probably sound ridiculously biased toward the profession, and I’m not ashamed of that. Dispatchers usually make up a much smaller percentage of any given police department or ambulance company, so they get overlooked. I’d like that to change.
Headlines about 911 dispatchers often bemoan the slow response times or mistakes. What would you like people to know about the job?
Depending on staffing, a dispatcher can be responsible for monitoring multiple radio channels and multiple phone lines at the same time. So, you might hear a recording of a dispatcher on the phone with someone, and it may seem like he or she isn’t listening or doesn’t care. But that is probably not the case at all. It’s just that if you have to listen to several things at once, something has to give. I worked in a single-person dispatch center for two years and felt constantly like I was missing things, and I know that I was. You just compensate by getting better and better at knowing how to triage it all. I had hoped that it would get better in a dispatch center with multiple dispatchers, but it really just meant more work for fewer dispatchers per call.
Basically, if all you heard was a sixty-second recording of the 911 call on the evening news, you’re probably not getting the whole picture.
You write about the toll this kind of high-stress job takes on you and your colleagues, yet so many people stay in the job–why do you think that is?
I think most dispatchers stay on the job because they like it, and they know (even if nobody else does) that a seasoned dispatcher who can multitask like a madman is a truly awesome thing to behold, and that skill and efficiency saves lives.
There are some who stay in the job long after they’ve burned out. Part of the problem is that it’s not a skill set that transfers readily to other careers. When I left dispatching to go into the corporate world, it took me a long time to get used to the idea that a clerical error or a missed phone call from a client could be considered an “emergency.” It took a while to get used to the fact that what I do now is NOT life or death. It will not be on the news, one way or another. Even if you’re miserable, there’s a lot of pride in the idea that as a dispatcher you’re doing something that changes lives. Saves lives. It matters.
What is the difference between a public safety dispatcher and a medical dispatcher?
Public safety dispatchers are usually the first to pick up a given 911 call, so they have to ask for and verify the address of the call and dispatch police and fire if needed. If a 911 call has a medical component, then the public safety dispatcher transfers it to a medical dispatcher, who sends paramedics by ground or by helicopter, and then stays on the line with the caller to give “pre-arrival” instructions. So, they are both 911 dispatchers, just with different roles.
How has the 911 dispatch community reacted to your first book?
Based on the reader reviews I’ve seen, and the followers on my Answering 911 Facebook page, I think half or more of my readers actually are dispatchers. They relate to what I went through as a rookie, and while the details might change a bit from region to region, the basics of the job are very much the same. The feelings are the same. Some dispatchers tell me they make their loved ones read it, so they can feel a little better understood. Some trainers make new dispatchers read it, so they can have some idea of what to expect on the job. This is all a huge honor to me, and humbling. These are the people I needed to do right by with Answering 911, and of course I wanted to do the same in the new memoir.
Do most people understand how incredibly stressful the job is? Is chronic workplace stress a common problem?
I think most people have work stress to some degree or another, and part of me feels selfish writing about dispatcher stress like it’s the only stressful job. But dispatcher stress is unique, and uniquely overlooked, and I don’t think most people quite comprehend it, no. Generally dispatchers are too busy to toot their own horns, so I’m just going to sit over here and toot it for them.
I think what people don’t understand about dispatching is that it’s not all funny and bizarre, and it’s not all murder and rape. In between the notable calls are about a million semi- or non-emergent calls, and those can really grate on you, too, partially because there are just so many and partially because they can get in the way of properly managing the really critical calls.
Another dispatcher stress I address in the book is powerlessness. Shows like CSI make things like detective work and lifesaving look so fast and easy. But most of the calls that come in are for crimes that are already cold and lives that are already lost and can’t be helped. Being a dispatcher often means always doing everything you possibly can, but having to accept that most times everything is not enough.