My college background encompasses both the Electrical Engineering and Criminal Justice fields. The engineering came first and for 3 ½ years I worked as a design engineer in the research and development department of a mid-sized east coast company. I lived out east during that time and I discovered two things; I wasn’t a very good design engineer and I wasn’t happy in New York City. When I was laid off, I was almost relieved.
Back home in sweet home Chicago, I took a job with the company that was building the brand new, state-of-the-art 911 system for the City of Chicago. By today’s standards the technology was archaic, but back then it was cutting edge. I knew better than to seek a position in the design portion of the project, but I was very comfortable working as the engineering liaison coordinator where all I needed was engineering vocabulary and an understanding of the overall design. When the system launched it brought the department’s communications out of the dark ages.
Then a complex series of fateful events culminated in a major career shift that saw me leaving the engineering field and joining the Chicago Police Department as a recruit. That’s a whole other story…
For the next 29 years I moved through the department in various assignments; beat officer, tactical officer, homicide detective and ultimately to the Training Division where a 2.5 million dollar television production studio was languishing because no one quite understood what to do with it. By this time a few of the department brass knew of my engineering background so that was a natural fit. I wound up as a lieutenant and eventually became Commanding Officer of several sections, including the television studio.
As I was nearing the time to perhaps consider an early retirement, the department began construction of a brand new state-of-the-art 911 system that would make use of the technological advances of the previous 30 years. I was offered a civilian position as operations manager at the new communication center. Because it was a civilian post, I would be required to retire from the department to accept the position. It was such a good fit for me and the city, I couldn’t turn it down. The only negative was I would no longer be a sworn police officer.
So on a Thursday in late August 1995 I officially left the police department and on Friday I walked into the new 911 building with an assorted group of “new” hires. The plaster was literally still wet in some of the stairwells. Us new folks were a diverse group with various areas of police and/or communications experience, but we shared one common denominator; none of us knew how to run the innovative computerized communication system. In many ways it would be a totally unique experience for all of us.
What followed were several months of intensive training, but as one of the six operations managers necessary to run the center 24/7, I had to train as call-taker, dispatcher, supervisor, and operations manager. I quickly came to marvel at the judgment and skill needed to be a good call-taker or dispatcher. In the early years of operation I would on occasion log onto a console and work as a call-taker for an hour or so, but I never trusted myself to do the same at a dispatcher’s position. Being a 911 dispatcher for any large urban police department is a high stakes game where life and death can hang in the balance. The City of Chicago was no different. It was not my in province to unnecessarily increase the risks that came with the territory. After the first year and several harried experiences at a call-takers console, I stopped doing that also. Best to leave it to the true pros that did it on a daily basis and accept the fact that I was only qualified to be the boss.
The call-taker endures countless prank calls and then suddenly is confronted with a hysterical caller who has just experienced the most traumatic event of his/her life. Hysteria does not enhance one’s communications skills, but the call-taker perseveres and gradually elicits enough information to send help to the proper location.
I spoke with a call-taker who took a call from a suicide victim, moments before he shot himself to death. He was calmly calling to tell the police where they could find his body. He hung up and shot himself.
“He didn’t answer on call back,” lamented the call-taker. “I didn’t get any chance to keep him on the line. Oh my God, could I have done something more?”
I reviewed the tape. It was a chilling but brief conversation.
“No,” I assured the call-taker, “You couldn’t have done anything more.”
Somehow I sensed my words didn’t help. The call-taker stared at the console.
“I was the last person he talked to, and I wasn’t even family.”
Another day, during the early morning hours, I was monitoring one of our busier zones when a police sergeant called in.
“Shots fired! I’m hit!”…then silence.
The dispatcher called for a location…
The sergeant was not on any assignment, so the dispatcher did a quick review of calls in the sector in which the sergeant may have been responding. Voila! Guided by the dispatcher a beat car found the sergeant gravely wounded and unconscious in his car.
“Police officer shot, squad! It’s bona fide. Send me an ambulance. Now!” The beat officer was literally screaming.
Assist cars arriving moments later found nothing. The beat car had reported the wrong location. Then I heard the paramedics reporting that they were finding nothing.
“Squad! Where’s that fucking ambulance? I’ve got a police officer shot!”
The dispatcher was calm and authoritative.
“Can you give me a better location?”
A string of expletives from the beat car exploded in our eardrums.
Then after a pause that seems like an eternity, “Squad, sorry… correct that location to…”
“10-4, fire’s on the way. All units responding to the police officer shot, the corrected location is…”
The dispatcher’s voice never wavered, remaining calm, cool and professional. By now however, I knew there would be churning in the pit of the dispatcher’s stomach, there would be a tremor in the hands as the corrected address was typed into the computer. When the incident was concluded, I had an unscheduled relief slide into the seat. The seemingly detached dispatcher left the floor in a state of near collapse.
“I didn’t know where he was!” was the plaintive tone as we walked off the floor together. The next day I learned that at the end of the shift, the dispatcher quietly drove to the hospital to sit with the sergeant’s family while the surgeons worked their magic. The sergeant survived.
I’ve always known that cops and firemen were a special breed, but my experiences at the communications center taught me that 911 call-takers and dispatchers are cut from the same cloth. Although they are trapped inside a building and tethered to a headset for their tour of duty, their professionalism and stress levels are no less intense.
And so, it came to pass that it was time for me to really retire. There’s a lot to be said for just quietly walking out the back door on your last day. Alas, I didn’t do it that way. I announced my impending departure a few weeks in advance, and as the day grew closer, so did the emotional roller coaster. I was aware that my whole crew was planning a last night extravaganza. Since we worked from 9 PM to 5 AM, it would be partly during duty hours in the large kitchen and seating area adjacent to the communication floor. As staff rotated in and out for breaks and lunch I would sit and share memories with each of them. Everyone brought their favorite food dish. My family was invited and my wife and sons joined us about midnight. My wife headed home about 2 AM but the boys hung on. Walking out at the end of the shift would have been hard, but 5 AM was not the end. As the Communications Center changed shifts, the party relocated to a local watering hole down the street where we could relax without watching the clock. My sons were never ones to leave a party early, but things wound slowly down and as it was nearing noon we all wrapped things up. It had been a long day and many of the staff had to be back at work that evening. It made walking out that last door just a bit more bearable. I was truly closing out my career in law enforcement but I was too tired to cry.
- Note: In March of 2000, the Communications Center was handling 10,000 to 15,000 calls a day. The complaint log showed that we referred an average of one complaint per month for further investigation. Not too shabby.