Here’s another random chapter from my book. Enjoy!
‘I’m a Jew-hating, nigger-hating Nazi and I hate that sonofabitch next door and as long as you accept that we’ll get along just fine.’
I wondered if this was a joke but the large red and black swastika on the wall behind him told me it probably wasn’t.
It was my first day as a 911 Dispatcher and this was my initial meeting with one of my bosses, the Chief of Police. My second meeting was with the ‘sonofabitch’ next door who had clearly heard the aforementioned remarks through the open door and who was my other boss, the County Sheriff. He also happened to be the only black man in the entire county.
For non-American readers, it is almost universal across the United States that each county (shire or region) has a Sheriff Department whose job it is to enforce the laws in any area that is outside of city limits. If there are towns or cities within that county, each of them has a Police Department which serves those areas. In some counties, each department has their own dispatch centre. In other counties, especially very small rural areas, the 911 Dispatch Centre dispatches for all of the departments as well as fire, ambulance, rescue, and other emergency services.
To add to the confusion, most states have a State Highway Patrol that cruises highways and main roads enforcing traffic rules. Then there is National Park Law Enforcement, Fish and Game, as well as all of the Federal agencies such as Immigration, FBI, etc, who swoop in from time to time as needs be. Extremely remote areas, such as the area where I started dispatching, often dispatch for every single agency at times as we are the only departments with radio towers. At least that’s the way it was back then; things may have changed with the digital age.
But when the sh** hits the fan everyone works together because lives are at stake and we are all cousins from the same family. It’s an amazing feeling to be part of a team putting it all on the line to get things done, as I found out over my twenty plus years of dispatching.
On that first day, however, I had no clue and wondered what on earth I was getting myself into. It was in a vast but sparsely populated and mostly wilderness area north of Lake Superior. If you went any further north, you were in Canada.
I never went into dispatching intentionally. My then husband and I were live-in managers of a hotel on the shore and we needed to supplement our income. The job came up, so I interviewed and was hired. That was the start of over twenty years as a 911 Dispatcher, Emergency Medical Technician, Rescue Squad member, ambulance driver, and even jailer. Much of the time I filled several of those roles at the same time.
And so, I found myself learning the ropes of answering both emergency and non-emergency calls, dispatching for both police officers and sheriff deputies, as well as for all the other miscellaneous organisations I mentioned above, and handling walk-in inquiries as well. Car accidents, drownings, missing people, drunk tourists, ski accidents, snowmobile accidents, moose attacks, bear attacks, deer attacks, medical emergencies, fires; all these things I learned to handle. At first, I felt totally overwhelmed at the amount of information and skills I needed to master and doubted my ability to grasp it. The responsibility, too, was daunting. These two departments were so small that, if there was nothing happening at night, the deputies would go home to bed at 2am until the day shift clocked on at 6am. For four hours every night I felt like I was the only person awake in the entire county and the one responsible for the lives of every person who lived there.
Of course, it’s not quite that dramatic, but it seemed that way to me when I was let off training and allowed to go solo. My first night shift I was a nervous wreck! Fortunately, the phone didn’t ring the entire time. Phew!
Night shifts were a killer. Trying to stay awake through the wee hours of the dark when nothing was happening and there was nothing to do was always a stretch for me. Some dispatchers loved the night shift. I wasn’t one of them, probably because I was also a horrible sleeper and never managed to get enough shuteye. Sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture and I fully understand why. There was a TV to watch but, in those days, there were only two all-night channels and most of the programming was shopping or preachers, both trying to get your money. But falling asleep on the job was a sackable offence so stay awake I did.
One of the deputies there, Dave, had been a dispatcher before he became a sheriff’s deputy, so he knew all about the perils of night shift. He once told me about his early dispatching career when the dispatch log was still hand-written. One night he fell asleep and drooled through eight pages of notes! He had to rewrite them before anyone came in and caught him. I laughed myself to hysterics when he told me. Dave was my saviour after my first mass-casualty event.
The northern part of this large and remote county was a designated wilderness area. This meant that no engines of any kind were allowed in, even in emergencies. You weren’t even supposed to fly over it at low levels. A network of lakes and forest (one of Minnesota’s mottos is, ‘Land of 10,000 lakes’), it was a haven for canoers in summer and cross-country skiers in winter. Although stunningly beautiful if you wanted to get away from it, all it was a bummer if you got hurt or died and we had to go in and retrieve you as it all had to be done by non-motorized means.
There were many lodges on the edge of the wilderness which catered for intrepid adventurers, as places from which to launch and return, leave their cars, buy supplies, and rest up after their trips. Other tourists who were not quite as bold would also come to experience the scenery from the comfort of a lodge, venturing on daytrips or merely fishing from the docks. The lodges also catered for workers who were in the area to service infrastructure.
It was one of those midnight shifts when the deputies had gone home to bed and I felt as if I was the only one awake on the planet. Then the 911 phone rang to jolt me into adrenaline mode.
A first call came in from a man who told me that the lodge was on fire. I don’t remember much of that call because it was brief and as soon as I hung up, the 911 line rang again. This call I remember clearly.
The male caller was coughing a little. He calmly and soberly stated that it was one of the well-known lodges and that it was on fire and that I needed to get help. I knew the lodge and I knew this man, so I knew that he was confined to a wheelchair. I could tell by his voice that he knew I would be the last person he ever spoke to. The roar of flames could be heard in the background and it hit me in the guts; I would be the last person he ever spoke to. What was even harder was that we both knew that, in order to do my job, we both had to hang up. That was the heaviest phone I have ever placed back in its cradle.
This lodge was about sixty miles up a dead-end road; narrow, windy and difficult to drive even in daylight. It was a grand building hewn from local timber by hand. Beautiful and a fire death-trap. It was so remote that there wasn’t even a rural fire brigade which covered the area. My first tone-out was for the town fire department. They didn’t normally respond that far up the trail, but this was a desperate situation. Next were twenty-second calls to get the deputies up and headed out. Then it was a brief tone-out of the volunteer ambulance to get them rolling as well, and a call to the hospital to let them know that we may have a mass casualty event. After that I had to manually phone the other lodges that were in the area, starting with the closest ones, and advise them of the situation and could they take their portable pumps over and try to help fight the fire? Some got right on it, some told me that their pumps weren’t working but that they would wake some folks and see what they could do. Some of the lodges didn’t answer their phones. It was, after all, the middle of the night.
There was no mobile phone service in that area in those days and it seemed like an eternity waiting for someone to arrive on scene who had communications to update me on the situation. One of my deputies made it up there in record time but it was still probably forty minutes or so. He came over the repeater and his voice said it all. The lodge was completely gone, and it didn’t look like everyone made it out in time.
A team of interstate workers had been staying in the establishment while they did work on local infrastructure; in fact, the lodge was full. We couldn’t find most of them and the initial fear was that the majority of them had perished. Some of them had driven themselves to the hospital, which we heard about an hour or more later when they started to arrive. Over the coming days it turned out that some of them had simply gotten into their vehicles and returned to their home state, not knowing what else to do. Tracking them down was a nightmare and so were the harried calls from family, desperately wondering if their loved ones were alive or dead.
In the end it was determined that seven people had died in the fire and six more were injured. As I recall, I’m not sure they found the remains of everyone who perished as the fire was so hot; I believe they deduced some of the deaths from their inability to locate the people over time.
In all, for a new dispatcher who had never had a mass-fatality incident, especially one as difficult as this, I think I handled it pretty well. Except for one little detail. I forgot to call the Sheriff and wake him up. Oops! Maybe I was so focused on trying to save lives that I forgot about the chain of command or maybe I thought the senior deputy on duty had done this. I did get ‘spoken to’ about this, although he was pretty gracious. But, as the days went by, I really struggled to deal with the tragedy. Could I have done something more? Was there anything I could have done to prevent loss? And the memory of having to hang up on that poor owner when we both knew he was going to die haunted me terribly. I started to sleep less and look a little haggard. At the time I didn’t know it, but this was my first brush with Post Traumatic Stress. Deputy Dave saved me.
It was probably a week later, and I was home off nightshift trying to sleep when the phone rang. It was Dave.
‘It’s Dave. There was nothing you could do. It’s not your fault.’
How the hell did he know what was in my head? That was precisely the mindset I was getting into and I hadn’t even known it. But, bless him, he had obviously been there and knew. I took a deep breath and all the stress and tension released.
‘Thank you, Dave. Thank you.’
We hung up. There wasn’t much more to say. Just with those few words I could deal with it, and deal with many more traumas over the years too.
Dave was one of the finest law enforcement professionals I have ever been privileged to work with. A small, quiet man, he was a master at de-escalating situations. Where other deputies would wade into a bar fight and manhandle people into submission, Dave would often just stand quietly at the door watching the fight but letting people feel his presence. Gradually the opponents would realise and calm down, seeming to be ashamed at their silliness. He would merely nod and leave and that would be it.
Dave’s way of escaping from the job was to micro-carve. He sculpted tiny pieces of exotic wood into intricate designs. When I left the job, his present to me was an exquisite set of earrings made out of rose-coloured wood. I still have them to this day. Later, Dave would go on to be sheriff of that county for many years and retire with a great reputation, a tribute to the man who started from the very bottom, as a dispatcher.
As for the sheriff and the chief, they turned out to be great bosses. They kept their distance from each other, but when they needed to communicate it was civil, if nothing else. While the chief had his personal beliefs, some of which he would voice loudly and expressively behind the locked doors of the department, I never saw him discriminate at any time. As for the sheriff, although his literacy was quite low, he was intensely loyal to his job and a very, very wise man. He was fair, had complete integrity, and made some very hard decisions in my time there. For him, the only black man in an almost completely white county, to be elected into the office and hold it for so many years speaks to the man he was.
These are only three of the hundreds of incredible humans who I got to work with in my career as a dispatcher.