Behind the Scenes at 911

30

 

Chicago OEMC

Chicago OEMC

 

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…

Silence.

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.

Showing 30 comments

  • Chris Karney
    Reply

    Once again, you hit the nail squarely on the head. A good dispatcher can make and in progress job run smooth. Our zone operator never moves her voice an octave during a high stress incident.

    • jimpadar
      Reply

      They are a marvel to watch and listen to. Even more so when you’ve tried it your self and discovered you can’t do it!

      Thanks for reading, Chris.

  • Greg Bernacki (RET CPD)
    Reply

    I once sat at the a dispatcher desk at 11th & State to see if I would like it. Left the building after 30 minutes with a close to migraine headache. Dispatchers are a breed apart and a good dispatcher is worth their weight in platinum. I know now what real stress is and when I came back to the Area I said a short prayer for All dispatchers. It surely wasn’t for me.

    • jimpadar
      Reply

      They are indeed the unsung heroes of law enforcement.

      As always, thanks for reading, Greg.

  • Nina Kelly
    Reply

    Thank you, Jim. It is certainly the forgotten job. Recently directed at me was the comment, “Well you were JUST a dispatcher!” No,, I was a DISPATCHER!!! And very proud of the job I did and the talented professionals I worked with and learned from.

    • jimpadar
      Reply

      Not only forgotten, but it’s amazing the folks who never even think of the dispatchers as part of the law enforcement cadre. It may be getting better now that the TV is playing more tape of the hair raising incidents.

      My favorite dispatcher of all time was from my first district of assignment, 018. He was Tom Reed, “Zone 2, the workin’ zone!”

  • Chuck Schwier 018 (retired)
    Reply

    Dispatchers have saved more lives than any one knows.Unsung heros.

    • jimpadar
      Reply

      Amen to that brother!

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • PHIL SANGIRARDI
    Reply

    HOW ABOUT JOHN FISCHER ON ZONE 2 THE WORKING ZONE, ONE HELL OF A DISPATCHER.

    • jimpadar
      Reply

      I recall Tom Reed on Zone 2; 1966 to 1970. When did John work there?

      • Wally Klinger (Sgt. Cook County Sheriff's Police)
        Reply

        IF, I remember correctly, John worked there until just before the move to Madison Street. He and Rich Whelton were partners and long time friends as well as fellow Ham Radio Operators on the side. John had a 2-3 second role if you will in the very beginning of the movie Code of Silence where he was filmed sitting at the Supervisor’s desk at COS and the camera dollied from right to left. He died some years ago. A great man that I had the pleasure of knowing.

        • jimpadar
          Reply

          That’s probably why I did not know of him. I left Zone 2 early in 1970 when I made detective… spent the rest of my street career on City-Wide 2.

  • fjg526
    Reply

    Thanks Jim for your 911 experience and insight. Most interesting!

    • jimpadar
      Reply

      Thanks! I appreciate your reading AND commenting.

      • Barry Felcher, NBC 5 News, retired
        Reply

        Jim,
        I remember John Fischer. He and other dispatchers often took their lunch hour and a half in the press room at 1121 S.
        State. This was in the 1960s and 70s. Another dispatcher was named Ernie but I can’t recall his last name. They were a unique breed.

  • Karen Martin
    Reply

    Thank you Mr. Padar!

    • jimpadar
      Reply

      Another message from a great pro! Thanks for commenting Karen—it was a pleasure working with you.

  • Mary Therese Franzak
    Reply

    I so enjoy your writing. Every topic is really interesting. What a gift.

  • depriestmr
    Reply

    I am a retired officer who had a daughter follow me to the department. Also followed me to two different districts ( west side and south side). Has been a dispatcher now for over 17 years. I only heard her a few times on city wide. God bless them all….call takers and dispatchers. They have your back as do all of your responders.

  • john
    Reply

    I’ll never forget the grand old dispatchers from Citywide two. Guys like John Dunlap, Creedon and others who in the days before computers, beepers, cellphones and hand helds ran countless name checks, vin numbers, plates for four areas of Task Force/SOG, Dispatched detectives and lab people to serious shooting and Homicides in an era that we hovered near 900 murders a year.

    • jimpadar
      Reply

      1974 was a record year for homicides in Chicago; 970. Our clear-up rate city-wide was 78%. I think Area Four clear-ups were over 80%. Those were the days!

  • jim brown
    Reply

    Jim, An interesting perspective. When I drive the Dan Ryan I still see the Englewood alarm office off the expressway to the east. Also the fire alarm office north was in City Hall. It made a lot of sense to combine both fire and police and paramedics. You and the 911 people did a good job.

    • jimpadar
      Reply

      Thanks Jim. At the beginning we had a lot of bad publicity, 99% false and misleading. Unfortunately the public and some police officers bought into it. It took us several months to convince the naysayers that the center was in fact a vast improvement over the old room. As we slowly proved ourselves, the detractors crawled back under their rocks.

  • Joe Hurto
    Reply

    Another great article. My father often commented about importance of a good dispatcher. The sergeant you mentioned, was he shot in the arm through the door of his patrol car? Mike Y.? He was my father’s partner many years ago, and I met him when my dad retired, nice guy.

    Keep up the great writing, I always anticipate a the good reads, when is the book coming out? 🙂

    • jimpadar
      Reply

      Thanks for you kind words, Joe.

      To be perfectly honest with you I do not recall the sergeant’s name. I believe it was a graze wound to the head, through the open driver’s side window.

      Offender turned out to be some yo-yo on the roof of a residential building across the street. He was arrested several hours later.

      The book is a ways off, I’m still searching for a literary agent…

  • Roger Elmer
    Reply

    Jim, you’re absolutely right about dispatchers. I can remember listening to CW2 during the shift and having the Zone 10 pedal stick during a “Cars in 10/11 and units on city-wide” call from overuse. We would continue to hear the Zone 10 for maybe half an hour because the return on the pedal was broken from so much use during in progress calls. Nothing ever seemed to rattle those people on Zone 10 or on CW2.

    • jimpadar
      Reply

      A good dispatcher is unflappable on the air. Not to say that their adrenaline and pulse rate don’t get going from time to time, but you’d never know from just listening to them.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Roger.

  • Rhomel Owens
    Reply

    As a probationary officer I was always told that dispatcher’s were your friends and if rubbed the wrong way could be your worst nightmare…leading to a long day/night. The new OEMC structure broke down some of the comraderie we (officer’s) had with our dispatcher’s, but they remain the backbone of safe interventions for all officers. The article also brought me to tears as I read about the Sgt. Mike Y…. I was working the desk in the 10th District and had just been talking to the Sargeant moments before the shooting. He was shot in the Left arm by a sniper and retired as a result of it.

  • Jay
    Reply

    Well written. Thanks for giving us your perspective as it really brings it home.

    • jimpadar
      Reply

      Thanks for reading, Jay!

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