Ever wonder what it’s like answering 9-1-1 Emergency calls? These are real stories from actual 9-1-1 calls providing an inside-look at the world of emergency communications: the good, the bad, the funny, and the sad; and how it all affects the dispatchers who answer those calls 24/7/365.
The Bank Job
“911 Emergency”, my recording sounded off as I clicked to answer another call. I lazily looked up at the digital clock watching the seconds slowly tick away. It was a little after 2pm. This had been the day from hell because it was unusually busy for a Saturday. I started work at 6am, so I was counting down the minutes until I was off work at 6pm, which could not come soon enough.
“We need the police here right away because we were just robbed and we’re locked in the vault”, the female caller whispered.
That quickly snapped me out of my daze. “Where are you”, I asked. She mumbled inaudibly. I looked at my computer to check the caller ID. It was a cell phone; I hated calls from cell phones. I used computers to try and “trace” her call, but cell phone technology was plotting her calling from Angel Stadium. Strange, there was no baseball game today.
“Ma’am, I can’t hear you. Where are you? What’s the address?”
“The Credit Union”, she whispered. That narrowed it down. I knew there was one across the street from the stadium. Hmmm smart, I thought… robbing a bank on a Saturday afternoon just before closing at 2pm and it was a block away from a freeway.
“How long ago did this happen?”
“Just right now. He just walked out. Please help us, we’re locked inside!”
“Do you work there, or are you a customer?” My partners knew I had something good because they could hear the 200mph click-clack of the keys on my keyboard.
“I’m a teller.” She started gasping for breath, like she had just finished running a 5K.
“Ok, I have help on the way. They are driving to the bank right now, but I’m going to keep asking you questions while they drive. Ok? What’s your name?” Asking the caller’s name was like a jedi mind trick that dispatchers often used to help callers remain calm and focus.
“Julie.” I could hear her start to regain her composure. Good, because I had a lot more questions for her and I wanted to catch the bad guy.
“Julie, is everyone ok? Is anyone hurt?”
“No, we’re ok”. I heard clamoring in the background. “Is everyone ok…”, she asked the people in the background with her.
“How many suspects were there?”
“Just one and he had a gun”, she replied.
“Ok Julie. Tell me what he looked like”.
“I’m not sure. He was wearing a mask”. She said this with a terror in her voice, like a creature from a horror movie had just jumped off the big screen to scare her.
“Ok, what was the mask of?… like a person, or a character?”
“I think it was Frankenstein. It was a green, rubber mask that covered his face”.
“Are you sure it was a male”, I asked.
“Yeah ‘cuz of his voice”, she clarified as it occurred to her why I asked.
“Ok good. Tell me more about him. What was he wearing?”
“All black… black shirt and black pants.”
“What kind of gun did he have? Was it like a small hand gun, or a big shot gun?”
“A ummmmmm, small black handgun I think. I dunno.”
I pulled up the map to view the location of responding units. They were getting closer. It hadn’t been that long, although I’m sure time was standing still for Julie and her coworkers locked inside the vault. I looked at my computer and saw an update entered in my call by one of my partners describing the suspect’s vehicle and direction of travel. How in the world did she have that information? I looked over at her typing and saw smoke coming from her keyboard as her fingers hit the keys. She glanced back at me and tapped her headset, “Witness”, she quickly said, and continued typing and talking to someone on a separate phone call she had answered. Outstanding!
The witness was the husband of an employee at the bank. He was sitting in his car in the parking lot waiting to pick his wife up from work. He watched the suspect run up to the bank doors as an employee was closing them for the day and then go inside. He thought nothing of it. Imagine his surprise when he saw the suspect come running out wearing a Frankenstein mask holding a gun in one hand and a bag of money in the other. To his credit, he knew something was wrong and immediately noted the make, model, and license plate number on the vehicle the suspect drove away in and called 9-1-1. A Motor Officer in the area located the suspect and followed in pursuit.
I could hear more people talking in the background again. Julie took a deep sigh and let out a groan in frustration tired of all the questions. “Julie, I know you’re scared and you just want out of there, but you gotta hang with me a little bit longer. Who’s Maria? Is she with you?”
This seemed to catch Julie by surprise. “Umm ummmm, yeah she is. She’s right here. Wait, how’d you know?”
“Listen to me carefully. I have diverted the officers who were on the way to the bank because we found the suspect and we’re chasing him right now. Maria’s husband was in the parking lot and saw it happen and he got the information to us. Maria’s husband is fine; he’s still in the parking lot. We want to catch the bad guy, ok?”
This seemed to put Julie at ease, like she didn’t mind being locked inside the vault now as long as the suspect was going to get caught. I heard her start to cry as she told her coworkers in the background. And they cheered.
“Motor 700, we’re northbound 57 now from Orangewood, speeds in excess of 100 mph. Advise Highway Patrol. I’m following to keep obs only. Where’s the next closest unit?”, I heard come over the radio. “700 standby, we’re now exiting Ball Rd. and set up for eastbound.” The two dispatchers down at the front of the room were masterfully working to redirect resources and make notifications, like directors of an orchestra. Other units caught up to the suspect just as he lost control of his vehicle and caused a traffic collision.
I let Julie know what happened. “So, I’m guessing this was the craziest day of work you’ve ever had at the bank?”, I asked jokingly.
“Yeah, this one definitely takes the cake”, as she laughed. “I need a raise!”
“I’ll see what I can do about that. You did a good job Julie.”
I stayed on the phone with Julie the entire time, making more small-talk until officers responded to the bank to help the employees.
Few people realize the teamwork that happens in an emergency communications center. Several call-takers answering calls from different people about the same incident; radio dispatchers sending and redirecting field units. It can appear as chaos, but under that chaotic surface there is a brilliant design as specially trained telecommunicators intently multi-task to bring order. Numerous calls from inside the bank were received. One call outside the bank came from the witness. Several field officers were involved in responding to two different locations: the bank and the termination of the pursuit. At the end of the day, no one was hurt or injured and the bad guy went to jail. That is a good day for a dispatcher.