I was often asked what I loved most about working as a 911 dispatcher. Well, the answer may surprise you…
For nearly ten years, I worked in a police dispatch communications center answering 911 emergency calls. I have heard it all. It came to a point when nothing callers would say surprised me. But then again, just when I thought I had heard it all, a caller would request police assistance for the most absurd reasons that my creative imagination could not even begin to fathom on its own. I could not make this stuff up if I tried. I have some pretty awesome stories.
As a result, many of my friends (outside of law enforcement) thought it was really cool when I ran in their social circles. They would introduce me to their other friends saying something like this, “This is my friend Ryan, and you’ll never guess what his job is!!!” And so the game would begin with them thinking of the most bizarre profession I might have: “Do you work with tigers at the zoo? Are you a gigolo? You do movie stunts? Are you in Blue Man Group? Work at a sperm bank? FBI/CIA? You could tell us but then you’d have to kill us? Back-up singer for Justin Bieber?” On and on and on they went. Many were quite amused when I said I worked as a 911 dispatcher. They had never met a “real-life” 911 dispatcher before, as if I were from a distant planet far off in the cosmos. And then they would ask me this: “What do you love most about being a 911 dispatcher?”
Interesting question, especially coming from people who seconds earlier thought I might be an undercover spy posing as a gigolo who trained tigers for movie stunts starring Blue Man Group while moonlighting as a back-up vocalist on the Bieber fever tour. My answer to them: “People”.
As a dispatcher, I worked in a communications center, wearing a headset, plugged into a computer console for 12 hours at a time or longer. I didn’t see callers; I didn’t get to meet them; I just sat behind computer monitors and heard voices on the other end of the phone. It was kind of like playing a video game… imagine sitting in your living room playing Call of Duty all day long on your X-Box. Yeah sure, you can “talk” to other people online who are playing with you, but you’ll never see or meet them. It became desensitizing for me after a while.
And so, what I loved most about being a 911 dispatcher is when I got to interact with people in person, not over the phone. I always jumped at the opportunity to be involved in community events. National Night Out, school assembly presentations, Tip-A-Cop, having sit-alongs, giving a tour and explaining operations of the communications center, presenting at the Citizen’s Academy, and the annual Project 999 Memorial Ride were the best times of my professional career. I didn’t want awards. I didn’t want a promotion. I just wanted to meet people and represent my agency because I took pride in the work we did in dispatch. I loved talking to people, telling them all about my job, explaining the 911 Emergency System to them, educating them with information I believed might improve their quality of life living in my city.
I saw priceless smiles on the faces of countless children as McGruff the Crime Dog danced in a school auditorium teaching them about when to call 911. I met the parents and families of several children who we publicly recognized as “911 Heroes” with official awards. I met a homeless Vietnam War Veteran in a wheelchair who recognized my name on my uniform after he called 911 from a payphone in the rain because he had nowhere to stay. A partner and I played pivotal roles in the investigation and arrests of several suspects who intentionally and maliciously misused the 911 Emergency System to harass dispatchers and drain police resources for unfounded reports. I realized as a dispatcher that I was a critical component of the community-oriented and problem-solving policing philosophies that were the foundation to the mission of my agency. Never did I feel like I was “just a dispatcher”, good for only talking on a phone and typing on a computer. I had a problem-solving, life-changing, working dispatcher’s Ph.D.
As much as I hated my job some days, I loved it most. And it was people who kept me coming back to the job, longer than I ever anticipated holding it. Their smiles, handshakes, appreciation, and gratitude were all I needed. Sure, I have exciting stories about shootings, stabbings, robberies, and pursuits, but those pale in comparison to the satisfaction and enjoyment I got out of meeting and talking to people at community events hoping to show them that dispatchers and police officers are just ordinary people who do extraordinary things to serve others. What did I love most about being a 911 dispatcher? My answer remains, “people”.