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It’s All Greek to Me

Moving from Indiana to Minnesota 14 years ago was an experience in itself.  Although I was technically still in the midwest, I had no idea Minnesotans had their own language and their own way of doing things that were quite different to what I was used to.

 One of the biggest problems I faced as a 911 dispatcher working in Minnesota was being unfamiliar with the terminology Minnesotans use.   I have been the source of entertainment for many a coworker as I have tried to stumble my way through terminology that has baffled and confused me.   I consider myself a fairly intelligent individual and it truly dumbfounded me that I didn’t understand many of the words that were being thrown at me.  I honestly wondered if I had moved to a foreign land without realizing it. 

Example #1

     It takes a while to get used to a new state,  geographically speaking.   Unfamiliar with the names of the cities in the area, I did the best I could when under pressure.  While training at Ramsey County Sheriff’s Department, an officer ran a license plate for a vehicle registration.  This wasn’t an odd request by any means.  Running license plates is a common occurence in dispatch.  Not being new to this type of request or reading a registration back to an officer,  I keyed the mic to read it back to him ~ failing to read it myself first.  BIG mistake.  If there is one sure-fire way to embarrass yourself in this business ~ not reading a call or registration prior to airing it is it.  I read back the plate, the expiration date on the tabs, the vehicle make model and year, the registered owner’s name, street address and ….oh….(pause on the air as I am mentally thinking “how do you say the name of that city???”)   Well, I did what any normal person would do.  I sounded it out!    Can’t be all that tough, it was only 9 letters for goodness sake!  I gave it my best shot, and really thought I had nailed it and got it right.  I sat back in my chair (pretty proud of myself) and noticed my trainer giggling.  In fact, several of the dispatchers were giggling.  Nothing entertains dispatchers more than someone screwing up on the air.  I even detected a hint of laughter in the officer’s voice as he gave me his response of “copy” on the air.  The city name was Mahtomedi.   Unfortunately, “sounding it out”  made me sound like an idiot.  I pronounced it as “Ma-tom-ed-ee”.  I wasn’t even close.  It is actually pronounced “Mah-ta-meee-de-eye”.  Granted, it could have been worse, but being a dispatcher in training, the last thing you want to do in front of your peers is sound like a moron.

Example #2

     I was in training for about 3 weeks at Ramsey County when a better job offer came through from Bloomington Police Department.  After much consideration, I accepted the job offer with Bloomington PD.  Once I made it through training and was on my own as a 911 dispatcher, I endured quite a few problems with terminology.  Other dispatchers can attest to the fact that working with a rookie dispatcher just out of training as your partner can be a trying experience for all involved.  As a rookie, I was trying to prove myself a worthy “partner” to the other dispatchers in the center and to the officers on the street.  One of the veteran dispatchers, I will call her Lucy, had the joy of working with me as a partner on one of my first shifts out on my own. (Lucky her!)  After sending the squads on a vehicle accident, one of the officers requested a tow for the vehicle involved (simple enough) and “flow dry.”  Not having a clue what “flow dry” was, I asked him to repeat it.  Surely I heard him wrong.  Again he said “flow dry”.  I looked at Lucy and said “What?  What does he want?  What is flow dry?  Is it flow dry or floor dry?”  I continued to babble while Lucy looked at me like I was quite possibly the dumbest person on the face of the earth and here she was not only stuck in a room alone with me, but had to count on me if the sh** hit the fan anytime soon.  She rolled her eyes dramatically (I’m pretty sure she saw her brain in the process), refused to answer me, and turned back to what she was doing.  In her defense, I’m sure she wondered how on earth I made it through nearly 3 months of training without ever hearing the words “floor dry”.  I guessed the officer meant sand, but I didn’t know for sure and the last thing you want to do as a rookie is screw up.  I called the towing company and requested the tow and mentioned that the officer also needed flow dry.  The person on the other end paused and then said “oooh, flooooor dry…yeah, sure, we can bring that.”  Lucy never clued me in on what floor dry was, but I did find out it was sand they were asking for.  In Indiana, we simplified things and well, quite frankly, called a spade a spade.  Unfortunately, there were more difficulties with terminology in my future.    

Example #3

     A few months later, after settling into my job a little more, I was hit with another Minnesota term I was unfamiliar with.  It was during the winter and we had a fresh layer of snow (maybe a few inches) on the ground.  I took a call from an angry homeowner complaining about a couple of kids in a truck “whippin’ shitties.”  Momentarily stunned and obviously confused, I questioned the caller again about what these juveniles were doing.  My first thought involved the  possibility of kids throwing feces.  Well, that certainly would make me angry too and yes, that is a problem!   I also wondered what kind of place I had moved to where children did this???   The caller, frustrated with someone who didn’t “speak the language” (English), told me “You know….  Whippin’ shitties…  Driving in circles in the lot real fast and spinning out…” in a tone that indicated I was a complete idiot.  My response (grateful that the call did not involve feces in any way) was “Ooooohhhh…  You mean doing donuts?  Okay…  We will send an officer out when we have one clear.”  (Sigh….)  Honestly, who came up with whippin’ shitties???

Example #4

     Perhaps the most entertaining of all is a call involving fire.  I was working dogwatch (11:00pm – 7:00am), a shift that the majority of rookies get “stuck” on due to lack of seniority.  I was on dogwatch for many, many years.  I took a call in the early morning hours from a male caller reporting a satellite on fire in one of the city parks.  My first thought was “what is a satellite tv dish doing in the middle of a park ~ and why is it on fire?”  When I questioned the caller about what exactly was on fire in the park, in an excited tone he said ” you know, the satellite….oh wow, it’s really burning….you know where I am right?”  His location wasn’t the problem.  At all.  I just had no idea what was on fire.  I continued to say “the satellite is on fire?” just as he continued to confirm that “yes (dumbass), the s-a-t-e-l-l-i-t-e, is on fire!!!”.  When I dumbly said “what do you mean “the satellite???”, he finally came up with an alternate word for it.  (Yay!  Perhaps I would understand this one!)  He said  “Yeah, the biffy!”  Oh. My.  Lord….  Would this dilemma never end???  Does anyone around here speak English???  As my partner heard me struggling to understand what a satellite or a biffy was, he helped me out by telling me “Hey (stupid) – it’s a port-a-potty!!!!”  When I asked the caller if it was in fact a port-a-potty on fire, he excitedly said “Yes!!!  Yes!!!  That’s right!  The PORT-A-POTTY!”  As time consuming as this conversation sounds, it really went pretty fast.  I was a little relieved to hear that no, they don’t have satellite dishes in the parks so people could watch television here in Minnesota.  But I  was sad to learn of another term I had no clue existed.  As I toned out the fire department, I proudly aired the location of the park and the problem (a port-a-potty on fire) three times per protocol.  I’m sure those firefighters wondered what kind of dimwit says “port-a-potty” on the fire main!  

     Language barriers, on either side of the line, can be a real problem in this field.  Thankfully, for those that truly do not speak English, dispatchers have the option of using Language Line.  This is a service that can get an interpreter on the line quickly to translate for the caller and the call-taker.  Unfortunately for me, they do not have a translator available that speaks Minnesotan.  As the years have gone by, I have gotten better and no longer make such a fool of myself (at least in terms of language issues).  Every once in a while something funny pops up though.  Thankfully my coworkers are more apt to help me out now that I have proven myself to them.  It helps to have things like this to laugh about.  It helps to know we’re all on the same team in here.  If you can’t laugh at yourself, believe me, you leave the job to others. 

The call I am going to write about is a difficult one for me.  This is, honestly, the one call in my history of dispatching that I have questioned myself as to whether I did the right thing or not.  It is not easy to write about, and I wonder frequently how my decisions affected the child who reached out for help on the most tragic night of her life by calling 911.  I carry her in my heart to this day and hope that she is doing well and somehow managed to make it through this tragedy.  I know she is an adult now.  I hope she has found happiness in her life in spite of the difficult times of her childhood.  The following is what I remember, to the best of my recollection,  from this call that haunts me even today. 

I was not the original call taker when this call came in.   I was working part-time as a dispatcher at Huntington Memorial Hospital for their EMS units as well as Samaritan Air Ambulance, a medical helicopter out of Fort Wayne, Indiana that covered the tri-state area.  To be honest, due to the circumstances of this call, it probably never should have been transferred to me to begin with for EMD (emergency medical dispatch) prearrival instructions.  The dispatcher on duty at HCSD (Huntington County Sheriff’s Department) was very new to the job and I’m sure transferred it to me for prearrival instructions in the hope that a life could be saved.  I am not, in any way, faulting that dispatcher for transferring the call to me.  In this job, we make split second decisions and I’m sure he had his reasons.  I never spoke to him about the call, therefore I can only guess at what he was thinking.  I am confident that he did the best he could at the time.

The call came in to me on a transfer with the dispatcher at the sheriff’s department stating that a woman had possibly been shot and the daughter was on the line.  Calls requiring prearrival medical instruction were transferred to the EMS dispatcher at the hospital.   The daughter was approximately 12 years old (I can’t recall her age exactly).  I don’t remember the conversation word for word, but I remember that she was hiding in a closet in her bedroom.  Her older brother had told her to stay upstairs and not come downstairs regardless of what she heard going on.  She told me she heard a lot of yelling and an argument between her brother and her mother…   And then she heard a gunshot.  She feared her mother was injured or dead.  She also heard what she thought was her brother leaving in his vehicle and believed he was gone from the residence.  

She was terrified.  She was crying, but able to communicate well enough.  I asked her if her mother was still breathing and she said she didn’t know.  She was still hiding in the closet, afraid to venture downstairs.  In my mind, because I had taken two other calls on gunshots to the head where the subjects survived within the past month, I thought her mother may have a chance of surviving if she had been shot.  At my console at the hospital, I could hear the deputies that were en route to the call on the sheriff’s department radio channel.  I knew they weren’t close by and I knew my ambulance wasn’t either.  I made a decision (after this child verified the vehicle was gone) to ask her to check to see if her mother was breathing.  To this day, I don’t know if it was the right decision.  Children are so brave when it comes to these kinds of things.  As terrified as she was of what she might find downstairs, she wanted to help her mother if there was any way possible.   Had I known what that child would see when she entered the living room, I never would have sent her there.  She sobbed as she told me her mother wasn’t breathing.  When I asked if she was sure, she confirmed it for me by telling me that her mother’s head was no longer attached to her body.  I found out later that the weapon used was a shotgun and it had done a lot of damage.  It was a gruesome scene.  Swallowing back a few tears of my own as I imagined what she saw,  I got her outside on the deck and focused on the description of the vehicle her brother was in and what possible direction he went or destination he had in mind.  There was nothing I could do to help her save her mother. 

 I immediately fell into a police dispatcher role instead of the medical dispatcher I was supposed to be that night.  This child, numb from shock,  did an amazing job and gave me good, solid information that was critical to finding the suspect ~ her own brother.  Because I worked full-time at the sheriff’s department and knew my way around those radio channels,  I got on their main channel and dispatched what information I had about the suspect and the vehicle to the units responding.  I think I may have even gotten on the other radio channel used to call surrounding agencies to relay the information to state patrol.   I know at some point during the call another dispatcher at the hospital stepped in the room to assist me.  I don’t recall who it was, but he was helpful and may have put some of that information out on the air for me.   Did I step on the toes of the sheriff’s department dispatcher by doing that?  Absolutely.  Did I care at the time?  No.  Looking back, I hope I didn’t offend the dispatcher working at the sheriff’s department that night.  Because I could listen to the sheriff’s department main frequency, I knew what they had going on.  I knew this was really the only call they were dealing with at the time and I knew the deputies were desperate for information imagining the horror they would find once they were on scene.  I decided to relay that information on their channel myself rather than taking the time to relay it to their dispatcher and have him put it out.  I did it to save time.  My concern was that there was an armed teenager (barely legal to drive if I remember right) out on the roads and I wanted those deputies to have that vehicle description.  I wanted to relay every possible detail that might help them in locating the suspect if they came across him while en route to the scene.  Because this child gave me such incredibly GOOD information in the midst of such an extreme situation, her brother was found in that vehicle within, I believe 30 minutes of the call.   I believe it was State Patrol who located the suspect and vehicle. Considering all the back county roads, it really was quite outstanding that he was found that quickly.  He was found before he could injure anyone else and thankfully he didn’t open fire on those officers.

I remember after I disconnected with her once the officers were on scene, the dispatcher that had stepped in to assist me asked me if I needed a minute or two to step outside and get myself together.  I remember immediately saying “No, why????”  I think I was so focused and in the zone of finding that suspect and worrying about those officers that I completely buried whatever I was feeling emotionally so deep that I was numb.  It took a while for it to sink in and when it did, I just felt stunned.  My heart ached for the daughter that would remember her mother in such a horrifying state.  The guilt that I had asked her to check on her mother, forcing her to see her in that horrible state, made me physically ill.  To this day, I don’t know if I did the right thing. 

There is a saying that hindsight should never be allowed in the court of self-judgement.  Knowing what that child saw, it is difficult for me not to judge myself.  There are those of you that will think “why on earth would you ask a child to do that?”  And there are those of you that will say “you had no way of knowing what condition her mother was in.  If she could have been saved and you didn’t send the child to check on her and she died, you would have to live with that too.”  I go back and forth.  I can tell you that there is no amount of money that can compensate for the heartache I carry with me day to day from some of the calls I have taken.  Sometimes the calls end better and a life is saved.  Those are the calls that make this job worthwhile to me.  The problem remains that I never know what is on the other end of the line when that 911 line rings.  That being said, I know someone has to answer that call.  Someone has to remain calm enough to think clearly and make split second decisions.  Someone has to bring order to chaos.  Someone has to get through the hysteria to get the information needed to get the caller the help they need.  Not every call is life or death, thank goodness.  If it was, I’m not sure I could do this job.  Anyone that has been in this profession long enough will have stories like the one I just described.  Calls they carry with them from day to day.  Heartaches that never leave.

Because I worked in dispatch the next day at HCSD, I had the ability to see the suspect in jail through the camera system located in dispatch.  It was difficult to look at him knowing the heartache he caused his family.  I remember the jailers telling me that he had said the devil made him do it.  I know he got a hefty sentence and might still be in prison for the crime he committed.  I’m not sure.  It isn’t him that I think about and carry with me.  It is his sister who was forced to swim in that sea of terror the night he decided to take his mother’s life.  It is his sister that I hope with all my heart is doing well today in spite of what she went through.  Although I know I did the best I could at the time when I asked her to check on her mother, I hope she can forgive me for giving her such a horrific last image of her mother.  That was never my intent and I am so very sorry she lost her mother in such a violent way.  I don’t know if she ever thinks about the person who took her call that night.  In many ways I hope she doesn’t.  I hope somehow she has moved on and put it behind her.  I carry her with me and say a prayer for her each and every time I plug into my console and answer that 911 line.  I pray that no child will have to endure the horror of what she experienced that night.

Landing in the Hot Seat

Having been a 911 emergency dispatcher for 18 years, I have often thought of documenting some of the calls I have taken.  Many of us, in this profession, could certainly write a pretty entertaining book.  I have taken many calls that have made me laugh, cry and sometimes shake my head with wonder at how certain people manage to function at all in life.  I truly believe that this job is a calling.  Not everyone can do it and not everyone should.  It is a difficult job that doesn’t get a lot of praise and more often than not is under intense scrutiny by the administration and often times the media when something goes wrong.  It is heartbreaking to listen to a mother who has found her child not breathing, a woman beaten by the man who is supposed to love her, or a son who has found his elderly father deceased.  My heart goes out to each and every caller who has called 911 in the midst of an emergency and I have answered their call.  Although many, if not all, will never remember our conversation when they called 911 for help, I am hopeful that somehow I made a difference in their lives.  I hope that I have been compassionate.  I hope that I have been able to get them the help they needed quickly and efficiently.  I hope that even though it was a call they never wanted to have to make, somehow I made it a little bit easier.  The purpose of this blog is to give you an inside look into my life as a 911 dispatcher and to document the calls I have carried with me for years.  Being a 911 dispatcher is not only a job, it is a lifestyle.  It requires crazy work hours including holidays and weekends.  It consists of many hours spent away from family and friends, missed meals and missed special occasions.  It requires being tethered to a console for eight (and sometimes up to fourteen) hours at a time.  It is a job that requires personal sacrifice and a sincere willingness to help people.  My family has often taken a backseat because of my choice of career.  I have missed numerous events that were important to my children.  I am blessed that somehow they are able to look past that and love me anyway. 

Being a  911 dispatcher was not my chosen career path.  I landed in the hot seat not by choice, but more by circumstance.  I went to college at Vincennes University in Vincennes, Indiana and graduated with an Associate Degree in Corrections.  Much to my mother’s horror, I wanted to work in the prison system.  Although my father was supportive, I think he hoped it was just a phase I was going through.  I was not a great student in high school.   I was barely an average student.  I hated high school.    I was anxious to go to college and study something I was actually interested in.  I think law enforcement was a good fit for me.  I had a brother who majored in conservation law enforcement and while I couldn’t see myself as a cop, I could see myself as a corrections officer.  I have always been a rule follower.  I like rules.  I like laws.  I like boundaries.  (My kids can verify this)  Let the cops do the hard work bringing in the bad guys.  I could certainly do my part in keeping them behind bars away from society.  In college, with my dream in sight, I  kept my nose in the books and excelled at a level that surprised even myself.    Nothing can motivate a child more than his/her parent’s displeasure at their career choice.  Come hell or high water, I was out to prove my parents wrong.  Being told that I couldn’t or shouldn’t go into my field of choice lit a fire in me.  Graduating with honors made it an even more wonderful experience.  My mother begged my professors to talk some sense into me.  Much to her dismay, they all praised me and assured her I would do fine in my chosen career. 

I got married shortly before my college graduation and had my first child, Austin, prior to gaining employment at the Huntington County Sheriff’s Department in Huntington, Indiana.  I worked as a jailer for a year and a half.  I loved my job.  I loved putting on my ugly brown uniform and going to work everyday.  Jailers aren’t allowed to carry weapons so really, the only thing I had to defend myself was an extremely large flashlight.  Thankfully it was never taken from me, nor was I beaten to death with it by some crazed prisoner desperate to get out.  I loved holding the key that kept the bad people behind locked doors.  I loved doing my part to keep society safe.  The jail held about one hundred prisoners and I worked with wonderful people who always had my back.  At five foot six inches tall and about 150 pounds, I wasn’t very intimidating physically.  I considered myself pretty scrappy and didn’t hesitate to jump in on the action, but I’m sure my male coworkers wondered if I would be able to defend myself at all, let alone help them in a bad situation.  Bless them for never saying so to my face or even behind my back.

I worked in the jail on the dogwatch shift (11:00pm – 7:00am).  The jail was located on the secured side of the building along with the dispatch center.  The jailers were constantly in and out of dispatch because the controls for the doors in the jail were in the dispatch center along with security cameras that were located throughout the jail.  Since there was only one dispatcher on duty at a time, and the deputies were out on the road, the jailers often “covered”  for the dispatcher when they needed a bathroom break.  More often than not, this job fell to the more senior jailer (usually Tim Duhammel)who didn’t panic every time the phone rang.  Every once in a while though, I had to take my turn.   I didn’t know much about dispatching at that time, but I knew I was terrified that ANY call would come in while the regular dispatcher was indisposed.   I had a few crash course lessons from a seasoned dogwatch dispatcher by the name of Jerry Grimes.  Basically,  he taught me enough to be dangerous.  I made him take a radio with him to the bathroom so I could scream at him to “hurry up” should anything major come in.   How lovely that must have been for him!  I knew how to answer the phone and the radio.  I even knew how to tone out the fire departments.   Honestly, it was a wonder I didn’t have a full blown panic attack knowing the entire county was in my hands for three to five minutes at a time.   The responsibility of sitting in that chair terrified me.  Huntington County dispatches for five small police departments, seven volunteer fire departments and two ambulance services.  I was in awe of the dispatcher who could do it all.  When the dispatcher returned to the console I popped up out of that chair faster than the blink of an eye!    The entire room made me sweat with panic.  Jerry taught me the basics of  dispatch on quiet nights in the jail.   I was the type of person that wanted to be prepared for anything that came in while I was sitting in the hot seat.  I didn’t want anyone to die on my watch, even if it was only 3-5 minutes!  I learned a lot from him, and in time I grew more comfortable during my short stints at the console.  That being said, I had absolutely no desire to do his job!  Too much importance, too much responsibility, too much pressure!  I was happy as a lark in the jail.

After a year and a half of working in the jail, I got pregnant with my second child, Taylor.  Working in the jail wasn’t the safest place for a pregnant woman.  There wasn’t a “desk job” position available in the jail.  It was a hands on position that required me to be around the inmates on a consistent basis.  As confident as I had been in my career choice, I did grow tired of seeing the same inmates day after day.    As luck would have it, there was an opening in dispatch.  As terrified as I was to sit at that console, I knew I had to suck it up and fake the confidence to do it.  I had one young child and was pregnant with my second.  My husband worked full-time and quite honestly, we weren’t financially set for me to have the luxury of not working.  I needed a full-time job.  I applied for the position, interviewed with the sheriff (Rod Jackson) and got the job.   I turned in my heavy set of jail keys and my weapon of choice (the flashlight) in exchange for a shiny, silver badge that said “communications officer”.  There was no getting away from the ugly, brown uniform.

I don’t recall how long it took me to train into that position, but I know that by putting on the face of confidence (fake or not) I began to believe in myself and my ability to do the job.  I was very grateful that I had taken an interest and learned what I could about dispatching when I was a jailer.  While working as a dispatcher, I learned several things about myself.  I learned that I do exceedingly well in busy, stressful times.  I work well under pressure.   I can multi-task with the best of them,  and I can type like a crazy woman when necessary.   As much as I loved working in the jail, I loved working in dispatch more.  I felt like I finally found a place I belonged.   I knew each and every deputy in the department and the smaller towns we dispatched for.   More often than not,  the deputies responded to calls solo.  Deputies don’t have the luxury of having backup close by.   We relied heavily on State Patrol to assist on calls as well as our Reserve Officers who carried a firearm and had authority to arrest.  Officer safety was a big priority and I took my job seriously.   It was my job to know where each officer was and what they were doing.  It was my job to get them the help they needed should they end up in a difficult situation.   I was blessed to have never lost an officer on my watch.  The officers I worked with were fantastic and I learned a lot from them.  They treated me very well.  I could not have asked for a better department to work for.  I’m not sure if they ever knew how much I cared for them, worried about them and bit my nails to the quick sometimes.  I am grateful that Sheriff Rod Jackson saw something in me that made him hire me as a dispatcher.   Although I only worked there about five years, I made several great lifelong friends in the process.  Sgt Tom Tallman is a very good friend of mine who spoiled me rotten with strawberry milkshakes throughout my pregnancy while I was the dispatcher on duty and Chief Deputy Chris Newton is my daughter’s godfather.   

Working for the Huntington County Sheriff’s Department gave me a great start on this career path.  There are certainly calls that I took while working there that I have carried with me all these years.  Those stories and how I managed to end up in Minnesota will be saved for another day.  The older I get, the more important it seems to be for me to remember where I came from.  I would not be where I am today without the time and patience of the dispatchers who took me under their wing to teach me a job that I love.  I fell into this job due to personal circumstances, but once I landed here, I have never wanted to do anything else.

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