On Being a 911 Dispatcher

Have I ever mentioned that I used to answer 911 phone calls for a big city ? No? Well. Let me tell you— it’s an experience.

First off, let me say that I’m changing small aspects of every story that I share, to protect the public’s innocence… oh, screw it. I’m actually just omitting enough information to keep me from ever getting sued, not that whoever decided to sue would actually get any money. Nope. If they ever wanted to sue me, they’re welcome to have all that I own— my unpaid college loans, my 12×12 bedroom that I’m renting, my broken-down vehicle that I keep neglecting to put in the paper…. What can I say? I’m a giving person.

So, that said, let me spill the beans. Did you know that the human race, on a whole, is incredibly stupid? It’s true. Here, let me use a Hollywood quote to further illustrate my point. Who out there in Internet land has ever seen Men in Black? Do you remember the scene in which Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) is speaking with Jay (Will Smith) about whether or not the human race should know the truth about alien activity on earth? Well, this is the quote:

Jay: Why the big secret? People are smart, they can handle it.

Kay: A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.

I’m here to tell you: IT’S TRUE. Now, if you imagine the life of a 911 dispatcher, you get this mental picture of a harried woman, trying to be heard over the screams of a crime victim. I know when I signed on for the job, that’s kind of how I imagined it. I had this imaginary image of me, hunched over a desk, with a fancy headset, fingers poised on the keyboard as I struggled to get valuable information.

Me (into the telephone): “Tell me where you are! Tell me where you are! Is the murderer still there? Where are you?!”


Me (in a calm, only slightly-stressed voice): “Delta Two-Bravo, the victim is non-responsive. Be advised that there are two suspects unaccounted for, last seen heading westbound on…”

Anyways, you get the picture. But ohhhhh… let me tell you. Nothing could be further from the truth. Do you know how I spent the majority of my time when I was plugged into the phone lines? Well, let me illustrate a normal 911 phone call (this isn’t word for word, but it’s the best I can remember of an actual phone call.)

Me: “911 Emergency. Do you need police, fire, or paramedics?”

Irate Citizen: “You guys need to get down here right now, and tell my neighbor to..”

Me (interrupting): “Sir, do you need police, fire, or paramedics?”

Irate Citizen: “Uhhh.. Police. Police. Yeah, I need you guys to come down here and tell my bleepity-bleep neighbor to turn his bleepity-bleep cell phone down. I work for a living, and I have to be up in the morning, and I’m sick and tired of waking up at midnight with hit bleepity-bleep ringtone…”

Me (interrupting in exasperation): “Sir, is this a life or death emergency?”

Irate Citizen: “What?”

Me: “Sir, you called 911. This is an emergency line, reserved for life-or-death emergencies. Do you have one?”

Irate Citizen: “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY. YOU FOLKS NEED TO COME DOWN HERE AND TELL MY NEIGHBOR TO TURN DOWN HIS CELL PHONE. I work for a living, and I have to get up in the morning, and I don’t need this kind of thing to keep me up…” Etc, etc, etc.

Frankly, I don’t remember exactly how this call ended. I’m sure that at some point he said something about how he pays my taxes, and how the police never do anything, blah, blah, blah.

I’m sure it took me at least a minute or two before I could get him to be quiet long enough to call back on a non-emergency line, and if I remember correctly, I was the one who picked up that non-emergency line and explained to him the difference between criminal and civil law, and how it’s not the police department’s job to tell his neighbor to turn down his cell phone, etc, etc, etc. (If you’re curious, I can explain the difference between criminal and civil law another time.

Oh, and by the way, I offered to have an officer standby to keep the peace while he told his neighbor himself, but that wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t HIS job to talk to his neighbor about it, it was ours.)

I do remember growing frustrated, because after he screamed about how incompetent we all were, and how he actually had to work for a living (What the heck? We worked 11.5 hour shifts, and a lot of the other dispatchers who were finished with their training were putting in fifteen hour days on a regular basis, due to mandatory overtime), and how he paid his taxes which meant that he essentially believed that he owned our SOULS because we worked for him…

Anyways, after ALL that, I still couldn’t get him to understand that 911 Emergency really is for life-or-death emergencies only.

The public, for the most part, doesn’t seem to understand that basic fact. Now, PEOPLE seem to understand that, but the public doesn’t.

How do I know this? Well, whenever I talk with my normal, fellow citizens that I encounter in my everyday life, they all seem to grasp that simple concept. I have NEVER met anybody in normal life that misunderstands the simple concept of using a 911 line.

When I was at work, however…Well. Let me put it this way: I have ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA what rock the majority of these people crawled out from underneath. Where did they hide during the rest of the day? When I walk around city streets, or stand in line at the grocery store, or any other generic day-to-day place, it’s very, very rare to actually meet someone who’s overtly rude, or just downright dumb.

But folks, I’m telling you— I took at least five stupid calls a day. That’s five stupid calls….at the VERY least. And when I’m saying stupid, I mean STUPID. Where did they come from? Where do they go? Where are they hiding? And for that matter, how in the WORLD are they surviving?

Now, before you start saying that I’m jaded, or anything like that, let me illustrate my point with a simple test. I’m going to jot a quick list of possible reasons to call 911. Your job, as the reader, is simple: After reading each example, decide for yourself whether or not you think it’s a valid reason to call 911.

Okay, are you ready? Here goes:

#1: You are a woman in her eighth month of pregnancy, trapped in the upstairs of your house. You think you just heard someone break in downstairs, and your husband (who you know is out working) didn’t answer his cell phone. All of the neighbors on your street are either out, or not answering their phones. There’s no way down except for the narrow hallway, and you think you hear the person on the stairs.

#2: You want directions to Disneyland.

#3: There’s a seal on the beach, and because you have momentarily forgotten that there is a difference between a seal and a whale/dolphin, you are worried that the seal is going to die before it can make its way back into the water. Don’t worry, though… as you are calling 911, you are running back and forth from the ocean to the stranded seal, filling up your water bottle with sea water and dousing the wild, potentially dangerous creature. Hint: When calling 911, make sure to advise your local 911 dispatcher in proud tones that the seal’s skin shows no signs of cracking yet, so you think that it still has a good chance of making it due to your excellent ministrations.

#4: Your bumper on your neighbor’s car has, for the MILLIONTH time, extended at least 8 inches into your driveway, and the police, as usual, have done NOTHING about it, even though your taxes pay their bloated salaries. The car has been there for at least two hours, and not one single officer (whose salary is paid by your hard work and taxes) has happened to drive by the house, noticed what’s wrong, and towed the vehicle. This lack of attention has forced you to FINALLY call about it (keep in mind this is the first time you’re actually calling the police about it instead of just complaining to your friends and family.) The dispatcher on the other end of the line appears to have absolutely no idea that this is a reoccurring problem, and that the stress of this unresolved issue is what makes this call an emergency. Doesn’t she know that your taxes pay her salary?

#5: You heard something in your alley, and, being the local concerned citizen that you are, went outside to check on it. Upon stepping outside, you saw two gentlemen siphoning gas out of your vehicle. When you asked them to stop, they pulled a knife on you and threatened you, before running away.

#6: There is a black person walking in your neighborhood. A black man! In YOUR neighborhood!!! It’s obvious he’s up to something. He’s suspicious. I mean, he’s, well, you know. Black. And in YOUR neighborhood. It’s not that you’re racist or anything, but you know he doesn’t belong there. He’s walking down the street, in his suspicious-looking vest. Be sure to mention his suspicious looking vest at least three times, without ever explaining to the dispatcher what you mean by suspicious. Oh, and make sure to get really defensive and angry when she asks you what you mean by “looks suspicious”. It’s obvious she thinks you’re racist, and you’re not. You’re not racist at all. But you know your neighbors, and none of them are, well, you know. Black. And this man, who has now walked over to his plain-looking sedan (and who has now been joined by his lovely-looking wife and two daughters), and is now driving away…well, he doesn’t belong in your neighborhood. Why? Well, because he’s suspicious-looking, that’s why!

#7: Your neighbor is urging his full-grown pit bull to attack you, because he’s angry at you. He’s taking the leash off! Oh, Crap! AAAHHH! AAAHHH!! AAAAHHHH!! *Disconnect*

#8: What time is it? What? 911 is for emergency purposes only? Oh. Well, since you’ve got the dispatcher on the line….. What time is it?

#9: You are now a different person, with a DIFFERENT seal… only this time it’s a baby seal, and you’ve picked it up and carried it over to the beach showers, and you’ve got the water running on it to keep it from drying out. It tried to bite you on the way over, but you’ve got a way with animals, so you knew how to handle it. It’s now given up trying to escape from the water in the showers, and is now just laying there. It’s nice and wet—this is a much better method than using the empty water bottle that the other citizen was using. This seal’s hide won’t get dry with you on watch!

#10: You just heard a police car drive by with its lights and sirens on. Something interesting must be going on. Who would know all the good, gossipy details? Ooh! Ooh! The police dispatcher will know. Quick! Call her, and after she asks if you need police, fire, or paramedics, ask in a REALLY interested tone, “Hey… What’s going on?”

OOOOOKAY! The test is over! Are you ready for the results?

Now, before I give the results, I would like to let you all in on a little secret: These are all real calls that I received during my short stint as a 911 operator.

Here’s the kicker though: The pregnant lady, the pit bull, and the guy who had a knife pulled on him? Those are the only ones that came in on a regular, non-emergency line. Oh, and that pit bull call? I have NO idea where that person lives, or what happened. That was one of my worst calls that I took while I was there. The lady called up our a non-emergency line in the middle of the day, refused to stop yelling about her neighbor long enough to give me an address (Every time I continued to interrupt her to ask for it, she talked over me), and then hung up her cell phone after screaming for a few seconds. It was truly terrible. Remind me never to go through that again.

The pregnant lady, who had EVERY right to have called 911 ten minutes before, kept apologizing over and over again for “bothering” us.

And the guy who had the knife pulled on him? He went inside, started drinking a beer, and then decided to call us about fifteen minutes later, only because he wanted us to be aware that people were siphoning gas in that section of town. I was almost through with the call before I managed to drag out of him the fact that there was a knife involved.

So, there you go. As for those other seven calls… come on! Even grammar-school-aged kids know that seals come out onto the sand to sun themselves. The best part of both conversations was having both people SCREAM at me that I was lying to them about the seals being fine on land, and insisting I was just too lazy to send a police officer out there. I’m sure one of them must have thrown in the fact that, yes, he/she paid my salary through their hard-earned taxes. (As one dispatcher said, since we’re getting taxed also, and those taxes are used to fund our paychecks, does that mean we’re self employed?) I can’t even count the amount of times I heard that line yelled at me, usually when I was trying to explain something that the irate citizen didn’t want to hear. I can understand being upset, but really… did the Mr. Anonymous really think that I was going to arrest all those “good-for-nothin’ Mexicans standing outside of Home Depot“? Sending an officer out to talk with them and ask them to move along wasn’t good enough…they needed to be arrested. Why? Because (and I quote!) “We don’t need that sort of thing in our city!” For goodness sakes! Like I said, what rock do these people hide themselves under, and how are they surviving in the real world?


9 thoughts on “On Being a 911 Dispatcher

  1. Boy sounds exciting. I am starting my new job as a 911 complaint officer(the call taker) this Thursday. I guess once you work these jobs your life will never be the same. Haha.Becky (too!)


  2. i have been working as a 9-1-1 operator for over 2 yrs. I think we need the idiots to make our day better after you have gotten a call about a child not breathing, or a water rescue.


  3. LOL. That seal one had me in stitches, though I do admit to having called a non-emergency sheriff's line after animal control didn't respond to my call about a wounded and suffering raccoon. It's spine was broken, but it was still alive and being attacked by fire ants on the side of the road. I would have put it out of it's misery myself but it was in a residential location. The deputy did the deed after calling in for permission to discharge his firearm. I've called 911 on two occasions. One was to report a small brush fire during drought season and another time to report a suspected drunk driver that forced me off the road.

    You've got a tough job, no doubt about that.


  4. Thank you for writing this post. I found it while doing a Google search about 911 dispatchers. There is a dispatcher job opening in my town and I was thinking of applying for it. I appreciate you writing this; I found it very informative (and funny, if sadly funny!).


  5. Not sure how I came upon your blog post, but from one dispatcher to another, THANK YOU for putting it down in writing! You have successfully expressed, in writing, what so many of us say to one another!


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