The 911 Operator Who Works the Graveyard Shift

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Rachel,* 37
911 operator
Tacoma, Washington

I grew up in a small agricultural town in central California. There was an air force base there, but it closed down so the area was pretty depressed. This was in the ’90s. My dream was to go to Berkeley, but I didn’t have any money and I just wanted a way out. My friend talked me into going to see the Coast Guard recruiter and I thought, Well, Coast Guard, that might be cool. I love the water. And you get to travel. Turns out I couldn’t join because I was too overweight, but the Army recruiter said, “Don’t worry about it, we’ll get you in shape before boot camp.” So I did.

I absolutely hated it. I got in trouble a lot for not keeping my mouth shut. They were like, Here’s this free college money and you can see the world! They don’t tell you that you won’t have time to spend the college money. They don’t tell you that you only get to travel to the shitty parts of the world.

I got transferred to the unit that runs like the police station on post. And that’s how I started answering 911. I really, really, really enjoyed the work and I felt I was really competent at it. And now I’ve been with the same company for a little over 11 years. I make a little over $31 an hour now and I have most of my day to myself. Which makes it difficult to think about leaving.

Our building is really ugly and squat, like a concrete cave. It has thick walls because when they built it they were afraid it would be a target for terrorists. I pass like five security doors before I get to my desk.

It’s not exactly my desk … ’cause we share the work spaces. We have a headset that plugs into our station, so we’re literally chained to the desk. We can only go as far as the cords do. So there’s a lot of adjusting and customizing everything to fit so that you’re comfortable because it’s a long shift.

We’re the busiest center in our state. We get close to 200,000 calls a year. I work graveyard. My shift starts at 11 p.m. and I get off at seven in the morning. Graveyard’s a lot quieter than day shift and swing shift, but we also get a lot more of the serious emergencies. The other night I took a call from a woman who had her adult son living with her. Apparently he was addicted to meth and she decided that night to lock him out of the house. And he decided he wasn’t going to be locked out of the house and started breaking down the door. And she said, “I’m getting my gun out.” And then she puts the phone down and I heard a gunshot in the background and I heard the guy yell. She came back on the phone and said, “I just fired a warning shot.”

There must have been 20 officers that responded. You can’t just go shooting a gun off willy-nilly.

If there are themes to the calls we get it’s usually alcohol, drugs, domestic violence, and, unfortunately, a lot of transients. Sometimes transients call because they’re struggling and it’s cold, it’s nighttime, they’ve got nowhere to go. There’s not nearly enough services for homeless people in this area. I actually got a call the other day from a guy at a church complaining about a homeless person sleeping on his porch. He wanted him removed and it just stopped me, like, You are a church. Are you not going to invite him in?

I find suicidal callers the most challenging. We try to keep them on the line until we can hand them off to someone else. It’s incredibly hard. I’m always thinking, what can I say to this person that’s neutral, that’s encouraging, but isn’t — I mean, do I ask them about their family? Maybe they’re suicidal because they just lost their child … or their mother. Some of them just want to talk and that makes it easy for me. But I have to think about what every word could possibly trigger.

I remember talking to a gentleman who told me he was going to hang himself under a pier and he just wanted to let us know so someone would find his body. He said he was on the waterfront but he wouldn’t tell me exactly where, which pier. He knew he was going to do it. I wasn’t going to change his mind. I tried so hard to talk to him. We sent officers down to the area to look for him, but in the middle of the night, it’s dark, you don’t know what the tides will do. There’s a million places he could have been. They didn’t find him until the next morning. He’d hung himself under the pier the way he said he would.

I was so upset because that’s one of the very few times in over 11 years that I actually lost someone. I just felt like, I don’t know, like we failed this guy. I actually went to look at a map to count how many piers there were. How many would we have had to check? Could we have actually saved him? If there were only 10 piers and we didn’t find this guy, I would have been very upset. I was racking my brain, like what else could I have done? Eventually my supervisor listened to the call and said there was nothing else I could have done. I guess you just have to come to the realization that you are not going to save them all.

Unfortunately, in our job, there’s not a lot of happy endings.

We have a lot of frequent callers who we know by name. The vast majority are mentally ill and think that their neighbors are poisoning them or there’s radio waves coming through their house, that type of thing, and they are concerned that we don’t realize how serious the situation is because, in their minds, this is really happening, we should have the SWAT team there and they’re not getting a response from us. So they call us again and again and again.

Social problems are so upfront in our jobs. It’s always right there. We know there needs to be women’s help services. We know that a lot of people are so mentally ill that they can’t function and then become transient and go to jail, and it’s frustrating. It’s very frustrating.

You hear so much in the news lately that the support for law enforcement comes from the Republicans and the support for Black Lives Matter comes from Democrats. But I just don’t see that division really. I’m a Democrat working in a pretty liberal area, so many of my co-workers are young and progressive. We try not to make a big political thing about it. We’re all afraid because these social services weren’t enough before, and if they’re cut back any further, there’s a huge, huge population that’s going to fall through the cracks. And for the next four years, we won’t be getting any help on that front.

I think, if anything, it just strengthens our resolve to do what little we can.

Recently one of our officers was killed in the line of duty. He was responding to a residence and the guy answered the door and shot him and his partner, then barricaded himself inside of the residence with the injured officer and the suspect’s two children. He stayed there for about eight hours using his kids as shields.

He called 911 several times so we were all aware of the situation. And dispatch was telling us what information the officers needed, so we knew what questions to ask each time he called in. I could hear dispatch paging out the SWAT team. I could hear our supervisor walking the floor, giving everyone updates. We had neighbors calling in concerned about the police activity. It’s a huge cooperative effort. We needed to let the transit system know that the bus couldn’t go through that area. We needed to give instructions to the community members.

Situations like that, I have so much respect for my co-workers. Watching us all come together to do what we can to keep everyone as safe as possible — it reminds me of why I’m there.

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The 911 Operator Who Works the Graveyard Shift