As a former police dispatcher, I spoke to a lot of people. And after only a year working at a busy agency, I had heard it all: shootings, stabbings, rapes, robberies, assaults, domestic violence, and very interesting combinations of all of the above. They became routine in a single shift. However, suicide calls were always the toughest.
Some folks who call 9-1-1 are struggling with pain in their lives that may prompt them to think of suicide. They don’t have the intent, a plan, or the means to carry it out, but they’re reaching out to us. Others who call mentioning suicide are quite serious and are at immediate risk. When I answered Bob’s call on a Saturday afternoon in the early spring of 2013 I could tell by the tone in his voice that he was serious.
“I need the Anaheim Police Department”, he said.
“This is the Anaheim Police Department. Where are you?” I asked.
“I’m at a warehouse in Anaheim.”
“What is your emergency?”
“My name is Bob. I have a handgun and I am going to shoot myself. Don’t bother hurrying because I will already be dead by the time police get here. You will find me outside in the rear parking lot next to my car. There is a handwritten note to my wife in my back pocket. Please make sure she gets it. I am so sorry you’re the person who answered the phone. Goodbye.”
Those were the last words that Bob spoke. He hung up and my immediate callbacks to his cell phone went straight to voice mail. I entered the information into the computer then stood up and shouted to my partner working the radio to send officers right away. Our department’s helicopter flying overhead spotted Bob within two minutes. Officers arrived on-scene shortly thereafter and found Bob. The note was in his back pocket.
There was tightness in my chest, my throat felt like it was closing, I had difficulty breathing, and my heart was racing. But I made it through the rest of my shift. I knew this call was bothering me and I found that strange. Since Kathy’s death in 2006 (My Story of Survival [Part 1]: Police Suicide Survivors), I had handled plenty of suicide calls: hangings, overdoses, jumpers, and those who hurt themselves. To cope over the years, I developed a strong mental detachment from work desensitizing myself from most of the trauma I was exposed to while handling calls like these. But Bob’s call was different. I later realized why. He was my first gunshot victim since Kathy’s death.
Bob called late on a Saturday afternoon. The warehouse he was at was vacant, located in an industrial area of the city. No one was around to hear the gunshot. He called 9-1-1 so police could find his body. He wrote a note with instructions to notify his family. He had developed a detailed plan before meeting his demise. I don’t believe Bob woke up that morning and rolled out of bed with a spontaneous thought to kill himself. This was something he had thought through and planned out accordingly. It was eerily premeditated, just like Kathy’s death. She was home alone when she shot herself, so no one heard. She also called the police to advise them and she wrote a note with instructions to notify her family and our department. Sadly, it was also something Kathy had thought about and planned. The similarities were striking.
I called out sick the following day. I did not tell anyone I was disturbed by handling Bob’s call. In all my years at the department, I had never seen another dispatcher come forward and say they were bothered by a call they had handled. Dispatchers do not do that. We are tough. We have thick, calloused skin that hardens to armor and protects us from the terrible things we hear. We punch our timecards, then hit that “Answer” button when the phone lines ring. I went back to excessive work to self-medicate, submerging myself in busy projects to distract my mind from processing how Bob reminded me of my dear friend Kathy.
Days turned into months, and months went by until the early evening of Halloween 2013 when another voice would spark a wildfire of emotions in my heart and forever change me:
“My daughter just shot herself”, an elderly male said.
“Ok”. I had to briefly pause for a second because I felt the mental and emotional walls I had worked so hard to erect the last few months since Bob’s death instantly crumble. “Where is your daughter?” I asked, as I tried to regain my composure.
“She’s on the bed in the bedroom.”
“Where is the gun?”
“It’s on the bed next to her.”
“Ok, pick the gun up for me and move it away from her and put it away somewhere safe”, I instructed. “Is it just you and your daughter inside your home now?” I asked.
“Yes. I left the house about ten minutes ago because she asked me to pick up a couple of items from the liquor store just down the block. When I came back home, I set the items on the kitchen counter and saw a handwritten letter that was not there when I left. I started reading it and it was from my daughter, and I… I… I went into the bedroom and found her”, he said.
“Is your daughter conscious now? Is she awake?” I asked.
“Is she breathing?”
“I’m sorry, sorta?” I tried to clarify.
“Yeah, but it’s like she’s got some fluid in her throat or something, like gurgling”, he said. The officers had just arrived outside.
“Sir, I want you to put the phone down without hanging up and walk out the front door of your house with nothing in your hands. I have police officers outside waiting for you. Do you understand?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’m setting the phone down now and walking out.”
The caller did exactly as I instructed and set the phone down without hanging up, but he set it on the bed right next to his daughter. As the caller previously described, I could hear his daughter gurgling fluid as she struggled to breathe in the background. I listened to this on an open phone line for 15-20 seconds while police officers cleared the interior of the house to make sure it was safe. When officers came into the bedroom, I disconnected. She was still alive and transported to a local hospital, but ultimately succumbed to her wound.
I answered this call at 5:52pm. It was Halloween and the graveyard shift coming on was actually relieving my dayshift team a few minutes early to be courteous. It was busy and lines were ringing during the shift rotation, so I answered this last call. It would end up being the last 9-1-1 call I ever answered and my last day working as a dispatcher.
Click here for My Story of Survival (Part 3): The Journey to Healing.