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Much has been written about the guardians who serve us daily: the police, fire fighters, and EMS personnel. Their positive contributions to our wellbeing are often profound … and visible. Yet there is another class of sentinels whose contributions are just as profound. They are the men and women populating 911 centers across the country, serving the public in a crucial capacity who are heard, but almost never seen—the invisible guardians.
Everyday someone dials 911 to receive assistance for any number of reasons. Some are mundane, but most focus on a critical situation that requires intervention as quickly as possible before it deteriorates into something worse. There is the assumption by the public that the person on the other end of the phone will be able to resolve their dilemma in an expeditious and professional manner. Never mind the fact that the caller may be rude and cursing, has a phone with a bad connection, or is too frightened to speak to the telecommunicator. No matter what the challenge, they are expected to clear such hurdles successfully and without complaint.
When that connection is made the telecommunicator enters territory fraught with potential danger, navigating the unknown armed with a combination of training, technology, intelligence, intuition and, yes, sometimes luck. They can often detect a threatening situation when a caller is hesitant to speak or feel the fear of a child locked in a room while her parents are engaged in alcohol-fueled fisticuffs. They are literally part of these brief encounters. For those seeking help the telecommunicator is beside them, offering support and, to a certain extent, security.
Any incident requiring police, fire or, EMS has questions in search of detailed, timely answers: “Are there weapons present? Is anyone intoxicated? Are you injured? What’s on fire?” It is the responsibility of the telecommunicator to make these inquiries for the purpose of eliminating as many hazards as possible for responding emergency services personnel, thus ensuring a safer, more clarified environment upon their arrival. This partnership also often finds them turning potentially negative situations into victories: de-escalating domestic disputes, convincing a depressed patient that suicide is not the answer, or providing CPR instructions to the panicked family member of a loved one who has collapsed from a heart attack and is resuscitated prior to EMTs arriving. These successes are not always publicly acknowledged; however, they are expected.
What is even lesser known than the names and faces of telecommunicators is the toll—both emotionally and physically—the job takes on them. Long hours spent handling emergencies day after day requires a special person with unique self-possession. There are very few people who can do the job—and fewer still can do it well consistently. But even for the most talented, there is no escaping those calls that will haunt them forever. Listening to a parent shrieking incoherently after discovering their child has drowned in a pool with little or no chance of surviving can be soul-crushing. Remaining calm and offering words of encouragement to a severely ill person who dies before an ambulance can reach them is a life-changing occurrence. The cumulative effects of such events on telecommunicators have been laid out in studies demonstrating that some suffer from PTSD as a result. It is not a job for the fainthearted.
Despite such challenges, many stay in the profession for a simple reason: They’re helping people. Each call is handled with the knowledge that another is just minutes away and may require all the skills they possess to reach a positive conclusion, but with the understanding that those same skills sometimes cannot change the inevitability of certain situations.
Yet they remain quietly on guard for those in their time of need.
Eric Harne has been a dispatcher for 23 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org