My wife is the strongest person I know. If you saw her out and about, she looks like the most Clark Kent-esque person, glasses included. Besides her well-documented love of sweets, her hobbies include naps, petting cats, and destroying anyone who faces her in Mario Kart. But behind that sweet and innocent smile lies an indestructible heart of steel and a temperament that allows her to be screamed at all day long by people in the worst moments of their lives. My wife is an emergency dispatch operator and in honor of National Public Safety Telecommunicator Week (April 14th to 20th) I want you all to know how incredibly tough my wife and all of her co-dispatchers across this country are.
She had been working there, maybe three months when there was a bad wreck on the interstate that runs right through our county. It was a massive one, with multiple people needing to be flown to a nearby trauma center. That was the day that she learned OnStar-equipped cars autodial the nearest 911 center when there’s a collision. She learned it because there was an OnStar call where she had to listen to what ended up being a person’s final moments. I think about her telling me that often. That or the day she was working a shift when a mother shot her own children, leaving the older one alive to call for help while she fled the scene. Children are the worst to have to take calls from – she has told me that a plethora of times. A combination of their inability to adequately explain what is happening, and the sheer human response to a child speaking with panic or pain. And yet the second that call ends, she is on the phone with the next one. Some days it takes me a couple hours to feel even-keeled after a guest is grumpy, whether it is directed at me or not.
Before they opened their new center this past November, I would visit her during slow periods. In the five minutes I would be there, there would be at least a dozen various alarm sounds. Calls, tones from officers and engines in the area, alarm checks from various buildings – all of it was noise that startled me, and there in my vicinity was a group of women as calm as can be, while in my mind the world was ending with every alarm that sounded.
I have respect for all of those who put the safety and security of others as the reason they get up in the morning, but I have a special heart for dispatchers. Personal bias aside, there is something uniquely strong about the ability to hear someone in an immense panic or danger and immediately switch to an accidental dial, oftentimes never learning the outcome of the previous call. Something often forgotten about the work that they do is that unlike police, EMS, and firefighters, dispatchers rarely see a happy ending, or an ending at all. For all the pictures of people thanking the firefighter who saved their beloved family pet, there’s always an emergency dispatcher that makes sure that firefighters knew where they were going. We have a saying when she is on an overnight rotation, or picks up overtime: that she is keeping me safe while I’m sleeping. She does not just keep me safe then. She makes sure every single person in our area has someone on the other end of the line if they need it. She and her co-workers never want to have to hear our voices, but without them we would be helpless, and because of them I rest easy at night. To Alli and all the dispatchers at Berkeley County and every single center across this country: thank you. You all are the thin gold line that tethers us to safety.
- Asher Kennedy is a writer, activist, trans-man and cis-nerd living an hour outside of Washington in the Eastern Panhandle of WV. He proudly serves on the board of Hagerstown Hopes (hagerstownhopesmd.org) and has been featured on RoleReboot (rolereboot.org) and is on twitter @ItsAsherK