Me…sort of an expert

For ten years I answered 9-1-1 calls for a county in Oregon, at the same time I answered non emergency police calls for an understaffed police department, triaged and dispatched police calls for service, and dispatched over 20 fire agencies. I’ve taught classes for trainees, one on one coached, worked as a tactical dispatcher for the SWAT team, and served on the police union’s executive board. I definitely made the most of my career and have a great expertise on it. I know what it’s like to work overtime shifts all week and raise two children. While I’ve decided I’m finished with the career I want anyone interested to know the reality of it.

The hiring

So you think that answering 9-1-1 calls sounds easy? Interesting? Or maybe you think the money is enticing…I remember 12 years ago intrigued by the job because I wanted to “make a difference”, I’m pretty sure that I even stated that in my job interview over a decade ago. This was my second time through, the first time I didn’t pass the ‘criti-call’ testing. Each agency has their own standard for hiring, there is no national standard. For my previous agency we did a video test, then criti-call, then an interview if all the testing was passed. There’s nothing magical that can give you a leg up on these tests, work on your keyboarding speed and relax. These tests are to determine if you have decision making and multi tasking skills.

So you got through testing…congrats, this is step one. Next are interviews, these interviews will test your thought process and possibly have a scenario in it to test how you’re with hostile people. Relax, they’ll either agree with your decision making or not. It’s important to be honest in these interviews because if you move on you’ll go through a full police background which will examine everything you said…do not lie!!!! I’ve seen so many people kicked out at the background process because of their dishonesty in the hiring process.

And now comes the background or possibly polygraph depending on your state…everything in your past will be examined under a microscope. If you screwed up then own it, do not make an excuse for it. Nobody is perfect, so own your crap! After this extensive personal investigation then it’s up to the management staff to review the background and decide if you’re a good candidate. Now some agencies will do a psychological evaluation to determine if the candidate is a good fit or not.

And after that lengthy process a medical exam (hearing, eye, etc) will occur and then normally a drug test.

Yes, it’s a long process…usually between 3-6 months.


The training…welcome back to school, only lives are at your fingertips

The training is long no matter what state you are in, some agencies lonfer than others. On the west coast just to answer phone calls (not dispatch) it takes about 5 months of training to be “cut loose” (or working solo). The training/hiring can cost an agency about $200K per person so it’s rigorous, demeaning, and exhausting. There are intensive classes on criminal/civil law, lots of geography, computer program after computer program education, ways to work with the mentally ill, suicide intervention over the phone, emergency medical calltaking, and then loads of agency specific classes. After successful completion of the classroom (which about 90% pass) then it’s time to work one on one with a training coach. For months someone looks over your shoulders, dictates instructions, teaches, evaluates, and then at the end of the day gives a daily report summarizing all your mistakes. Since most people hired are intelligent hardworking individuals then hearing about their failures for weeks on ends is demoralizing. Only about 60% make it through this step. It’s by far one of the hardest things I’ve done.

Oh yea…most agencies also require you to eventually become a dispatcher so you’ll get to repeat all the above 2-4 times!

Wear my shoes for a day…

So my shift is suppose to start at 0700 (get use to the 24 hour clock) and I’m suppose to get off at 1700 (5pm). I have daycare arranged for my two kids and am dealing with the disappointment that I’ll miss my daughter’s 1200 soccer game and my son’s 1400 basketball game. Because I work Saturday-Tuesdays I haven’t seen one game this year. My kids are use to it, they are 9 and 11 years old and this is all they know. It’s 1600 and I’m looking forward to getting off work, I’ve given CPR instructions to a wife who watches her 55 year old husband suddenly collapse (unfortunately they lived so far out that even after 18 minutes of chest compressions the medics couldn’t revive him), I’ve dispatched a water rescue where the firefighters screamed in their mics as they tried to pull a 13 year old girl out of the river (unfortunately she had too many minutes under the water and didn’t survive), I’ve been called an incompetent ass because I wouldn’t send police on a call that didn’t meet our understaffed police department’s criteria for dispatchable calls, I’ve taken hundreds of non noteworthy calls and helped numerous people with non criminal situations, I’ve just received my weekly quality assurance report card from my supervisor (while I was listening to a wife bawl about her husband tried to strangle her) that reprimanded me for asking a medical question in a “leading” format. Yep, I’m ready to go home in a hour…oh, here comes my supervisor to tell me there was a sick call a hour ago so I’m “drafted” until 2200 tonight. So after I wrap up the medical call I am on I ask if I can make a phone call to arrange day care for my kids since I won’t be getting off until 2200, but am told another person is on break so I’ll need to wait for 30 minutes until I can text my babysitter to see if she can stay late. Unfortunately we are not allowed to have our cell phones near us when working so I cannot text her with more than 15 minutes notice that I need her to cook dinner and stay until 2230 tonight, I hope she did not have plans…

13 hours into my shift I talk to a 16 year old hysterical girl who just had a drunk homeless man jump in front of her car and she now has to try and render aid to him while he bleeds out. The next call is someone who is pissed that her neighbor is putting his trash cans closer to her house on the curb. Trying to maintain a level of detail professionalism and empathy to both these callers is challenging in my exhausted state, after the trash can lady yells at me because I won’t have an officer tell her neighbor to move his cans then I cop an attitude with her and in a smart ass tone repeat her request back to her…my supervisor has a reminder conversation with me about being more professional. I know my supervisor is right, but after almost 10 years of this being my day to day my patience is beginning to wear pretty thin!

15 minutes to go, 15 hours of being tethered to a desk and I drive home in a slightly delirious state. I will do this again tomorrow, which luckily stays a 10 hour shift.

When I go home the next day I go to bed at 1900 because this time I’m drafted to work from 0245-1700 so I take some Advil PM, close the blackout shades, threaten my kids to stay quiet and attempt to fall asleep. As I’m about to hit that drugged up sleep state I receive a call from a supervisor at work saying they have good news and my 0245 overtime was cancelled so I didn’t need to come in until 0700. I wake myself up because I have barely seen my family this week and I sit in a comatose state at the dinner table and get my kids showered and tucked in. It’s almost 2100 by this point and the husband and I are opening a bottle of wine and are going to sit down and watch something on the DVR when my phone rings again…sick call, work needs me at 0245. So I brush my teeth, set my alarm for 0130 and attempt to get a few hours of restless shut eye. When I get to work I discover I wasn’t really needed until 0415 but the supervisor didn’t want to wake me to tell me this…so instead I sit there, collect my overtime money, and try and stay alert while answering 911 calls. The state of exhaustion that I operate in for 15 hours is not normal, there are times I am so tired that I could vomit so I medicate myself with coffee, 5 hour energy, sugar, more caffeine, and a sandwich…I feel like crap but it kept me awake.

This is the norm for a calltaker/dispatcher in the agency that I work for, we are not unique.

We do it for years because we know that we make a difference. Some may do it because it is one of the highest paying jobs that does not require a college degree.

We walk away from the money because we are tired of being constantly yelled at by the public, talked down to by the firefighters, blamed for all communication problems by the cops, and not supported by the police chiefs or whomever runs the 9-1-1 center. It is a job that most that leave say they miss, but cannot bring themselves to come back to. I truly believe its the politics, lack of flexibility, poor management that causes the high turnover.

One additional thought….

On April 22, 2011 a great man was killed when he was trying to keep Eugene’s streets safe.  His death changed so many forever.  Police officers are not liked in this country and they deserve better than what we give them.  They truly lay their lives down for our safety, they see and deal with horrific things on a daily basis.  If you do not get the warm and fuzzy smile you would like when getting a traffic ticket then remember they may have just dealt with an abused child or a baby dying or just been spat at.  Be kind, be respectful.  These men and women are husbands, wives, dads, moms, friends, volunteers, and overall good people.

chris kilcullen