They have one of the most important jobs in law enforcement. The operators on the other side of a 911 emergency call talk about what it takes to do their job day in and out and the stresses they face. Patti Crooks Is a twenty-one year veteran of state’s largest call center in Seattle. She says, “I think in this job, you’ve got to be able to detach. It’s not easy and it’s not for everyone.”
Crooks is speaking firsthand as she’s been in the hot seat for some of the area’s biggest crimes including the Café Racer and Jewish Federation shootings.
But like many 911 operators, there’s one call that rings more haunting than any other. Crooks explains, “What was the most difficult night in my career, probably the most difficult night ever, was the Halloween ambush of our officers.” That’s the night Seattle police officer Tim Brenton was shot to death while seated inside his parked patrol car with officer trainee Britt Sweeney. “It had been a really quiet Halloween which is really weird for us. The dispatcher was Carrie and she had just come back from break. we heard an inaudible transmission and we both looked at each other and thought, ‘what was that?’ it ended up being the student officer trying to get out on the air what had happened,” Crooks described.
That night was just one of the thousands of emergency calls Patti has handled in her career. But she and her co-workers also spend plenty of time with people on the phone who’s calls a far less urgent. Crooks says, “You may pick up a shooting , hang up the phone and get someone who’s irate over a parking complaint and you have to be able to shift gears and empathize with that victim even though you just hung up with someone who was the victim of a horrible crime.”
911 operators go through months of training before they can handle a single call, but why is it they ask for so much information, not just about the emergency, but about you, the caller? “We have to ask certain questions and people get frustrated because they just want help if it’s an emergency that’s going on and they just want the police to get there. But we have to ask certain questions for their safety for our officer’s safety, so bear with us, let us control the call.”
And with so many people using cellphones and internet-based telephone systems, don’t assume the 911 dispatcher can automatically tell from where you’re calling. Carrie Ryan also works at the 911 call center in Seattle and says, “If you’re in a house and you call 911 from your cell phone and it disconnects, I can roughly tell where you are, but the officers pretty much have to go door to door or drive around and listen for any disturbances or problems.”
It is obvious that this job comes with many stresses, but according to Patti, one of the biggest challenges come from public perception. “It seems that nobody really understands the role of ‘ you’re dammed if you do, you’re dammed if you don’t.’ we get a call from someone who says ‘there’s a weird guy standing in my neighborhood. I don’t know why he’s weird, he’s standing here and I’ve never seen him before.’ Well, we’ve got to dispatch that and we go out and he’s really just fine –but he’s mad because we came out to harass him. But if we didn’t because someone else called in and something happened, we’re in trouble.”
And according to Carrie Ryan, the best thing about being a 911 operator is the opportunity to answer the call of serving her community, saying,“I love coming in everyday and it’s something new and I make a difference. I feel like a I make a difference.”