911 call takers are behind-the-scenes heroes

During this National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, the community recognizes these first first responders for what they are: Heroes


Almost since the advent of the telephone, there has been an operator handling the public’s emergencies. Back in the day, when someone needed the police or fire department, they dialed “0” and the switchboard operator connected them to who they needed to talk to.

When telephone lines evolved to people being able to dial their own numbers and be connected directly, this lifeline was temporarily lost.

In 1937, our friends across the pond implemented their 999 emergency phone system reaching police, fire, and EMS after a five-fatality fire in London during which phone calls were delayed.

In 1957, the National Association of Fire Chiefs recommended America set up a similar number. Sydney (Australia) implemented their 999 number in late 1957, followed by New Zealand unveiling 111. Winnipeg (Manitoba) was the next community to jump on the emergency phone number band wagon implementing 999 in 1959. Canada converted this number to 911 in 1972.

In the United States, the first 911 call was placed in Haleyville (Alabama) on February 16, 1968.

In true American fashion, Bob Gallagher, president of the independent Alabama Telephone Co., read about AT&T’s proposed implementation and beat them to it, getting his community’s system set-up just 35 days after AT&T’s announcement.

A few days later, Nome (Alaska) came on. Then in March, Huntington (Indiana) had the first AT&T-implemented 911. Later that year, Puyallup (Washington) became the first city west of the Mississippi to get an emergency number.

Throughout the rest of the 60s and 70s, numerous cities connected their people with the lifeline to first responders. The rest, they say is history (although this was all history, too). Since this time, 911 continued to evolve and expand.

As technology changes, demands and new ways of handling emergency calls has changed as well. Currently, we are moving into a time where all digital media, including text, video and audio will directly reach 911.

E911 has become wide-spread. ANI/ALI systems can give operators important emergency information via software such as SMART911 and mobile phones that are not activated can still turn-on and dial 911. Interestingly enough, there are still some places in the United States that do not have 911 services.

What’s it Like?
Most of us who work as 911 operators get similar reactions when we tell people what we do for a living.

That must be really stressful!
Does it ever bother you?
What’s the worst call you’ve ever gotten?

As our society has gotten more voyeuristic (I believe in part due to too much “reality” television), the gleam in their eye as they ask this question has gotten brighter. Answering the question would be easy with a little thought. I believe all of us have a handful of calls that stand out when we choose to think about them.

For me, it’s definitely a choice since those usually are tucked away somewhere below the surface of my conscious thought. That’s what keeps me sane. Pulling up the worst call and telling the facts of it wouldn’t be difficult.

The problem with this question is how do you relay the totality of the call? The sounds, the urgency, the hysteria, the feelings...

When all of that starts swirling around the facts, it just doesn’t seem possible to explain to a non-911 operator.

So, my typical response is, “I don’t really remember. They all blend together.”

My Two Worst Calls...
In truth, within all that swirling, I do remember – vividly. There are two. I had been an operator for less than a year when the first one beeped in my ear.

“You have an officer down,” the man yelled into the phone. “He’s shot! There’s another guy chasing the shooter. He has a gun too.”

As I heard the words, my body reacted. I typed and typed and typed as this stranger told me things I didn’t want to hear.

“He’s dead you know,” the man on the phone said. “Your officer, he’s dead.”

And he was.

Our officer, my husband’s colleague, had been shot and killed just sitting in his patrol car.

The second “worst” call came a year or so later. I was working a hybrid second shift — 1700 to 0300 — when it came in. When the line beeped and went live in my ear, a young man began speaking.

“My step-dad’s been shot,” he told me with that eerie calm in his voice that indicates hysteria is just underneath.

A woman wailed in the background.

After getting all the preliminaries from him, I asked, “Who shot him?”

“I did,” he replied.

“Where’s the gun now?”

“On the table.”
“How old are you?”

“Fourteen.”

Something wasn’t right. As a public safety telecommunications operator, you get good at honing and listening to your intuition. It’s a good guide for seeking the truth through chaos.

After asking a few more questions, the child finally admitted it was his mother who had shot his step-dad. After years of abuse, this night she protected herself.

“What’s going to happen to her?” he asked me through sobs.

I explained to him that the officers would go through a procedure when they got there. She would most likely be arrested, but things would be sorted out. I assured him things were going to be ok.

Once the officers arrived and the phone disconnected, I prayed I was right.

As 9-1-1 operators, we take tons of calls. In a 25-year career in a metropolitan area, the call total can be around a million. Some of those calls stick with you, some don’t.

Many are mundane, many are a glimpse into hell.

Handling your community’s crises is a calling. Not everyone is cut out for it. Many start training and then go to a calmer division of the police department. For those who slog through other people’s tragedies on a daily basis, we say thank you.

During this National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, the community recognizes these first first responders for what they are: Heroes.

Add your memorable calls and your "thank yous" in the comment section. I look forward it.

About the author

Michelle Perin spent seven and a half years as a police telecommunications operator with the City of Phoenix (Ariz.) Police Department. She is a Navy veteran and holds a graduate degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Indiana State University. Her publication credits include Law Enforcement Technology, Law & Order, Beyond the Badge, Police Chief, Police Times, and Police Magazine. Michelle has done volunteer work as an advocate for sexual assault victims and veterans. She is currently a volunteer firefighter in the small Oregon town in which she lives. She rides a Triumph America with the Patriot Guard honoring those who have served our nation. She currently works at Jasper Mountain, a psychiatric residential treatment facility for severely traumatized children. Michelle enjoys spending time with her two adolescent sons, watching ice hockey, and volunteering at the local ferret shelter. Michelle has been a member of the Public Safety Writers Association since 2005 and has been the Contest Coordinator since 2007.

Contact Michelle Perin

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