Book review: Answering 911 by Caroline Burau

22 May

Two years ago I worked as a non-emergency and 911 call taker and radio dispatcher for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).  The Operational Communications Centre (OCC) for Northern British Columbia (NBC) is located in my fair and fine city and services everything in the province from 100 Mile House to Atlin and all things in between.  That is a lot of real estate, folks.

The area within the yellow border (thank you dazzling Paint skills) is what my fellow telecommunications operators (TOs) and I were responsible for.  That is more than twenty-five major communities (most with their own RCMP detachment) a smattering of First Nations reservations and more complainants (callers) than I feel comfortable remembering.  The TOs take a myriad of telephone calls, each one different from the last: loud parties on a Friday night, couples copulating in a city park, armed robberies of liquor stores, stolen vehicle and missing persons reports, and even the odd barking dog.  I’ve let people know when the next pilot car is leaving to guide folks over a highway surrounded by fire, I’ve advised officers of cougars (the cats, not the barstars) in their area and I’ve found warrants for arrest on random, Sunday afternoon traffic stops.

This job is a big deal.  It’s difficult, it’s generally completely thankless, and it’s important.  I (obviously) didn’t last.  Shift work and stress that was unmanageable by me dictated a very early retirement, but I will never forget my time and I will never carry anything but admiration and respect for the men and women who act behind the scenes, calming you and assuring you that help is on its way.

Having said that, it comes as no surprise that when I read (in the May issue of The Writer magazine) a review of a book called Answering 911: Life In The Hot Seat by Caroline Burau I had to read it.

When you take the time to perform an internet search of books pertaining to the job of an emergency services call-taker and dispatcher very few resources crop up.  For the most part, you’re faced with preparation texts for exams, and these are all fine and good if you know you want this job, but what if you don’t?  What if you’re looking for a little insight into a job that no one really talks about?  Well, now you have a place to start.  Burau, a 911 dispatch operator out of White Bear Lake Minnesota, has successfully undertaken the considerable job of chronicling the life of a police (and sometimes fire) call-taker and dispatcher.

As a dispatcher in the United States of America, the radio lingo used by Burau differs from what I grew accustomed to when employed to work with the RCMP, but that’s where the differences end.  The calls described in Answering 911 are universal.  What Burau faced, I faced: anything from the twelve-year-old daughter of a suicide victim calling in the discovery of her mother’s body to an angry citizen kept awake by his neighbour’s clarinet practice and absolutely everything in between.

Answering 911 is an easy read that follows specific calls that Burau has taken in her career.  Due to this, the read can be somewhat sporadic and a bit choppy, but by and large it is well written and easy to follow.  When she is not describing the plight of the complainants in her jurisdiction, Burau gives a small look inside the day-to-day of the dispatcher: the games of Solitaire and trashy romance novels that keep the operators going during the most uneventful minutes (and sometimes hours) of their shift, the height of anxiety, the breaking point at the end of a difficult call (and the subsequent cry-trip to the restroom), and the tumultuous relationships between co-workers.

There is a notable moment in the book when Burau describes the reason one of her co-workers was hired:

 After her formal training, Marsha interned at the county, then a few months later got a call asking if she would like a job there.  One of their dispatchers had shot himself in the head.  She accepted; they gave her his old locker. (Burau 103)

This is an important passage; it highlights, without apology, the very real possible outcome directly related to the stresses that accompany this job.  Obviously not every dispatcher takes his or her own life, just as the job is not the only reason an operator would commit suicide, but it can be a reason and it is important to note that.  Just as important, Burau takes time to observe, through a conversation between a co-worker and herself, the very real possibility of becoming jaded by the job and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad people and their inane reasons to make a telephone call:

I wonder why [Marsha] isn’t cynical like me, and like so many others I work with who have been [there] forever and have every right to be cynical, unlike me.

‘I’ve come full circle with all of that,’ she says.  ‘Every call is different.  Who am I to judge the people who call me?’ (Burau 103)

I have already recommended this book for use as a training resource to the training coordinator of NBC’s OCC.  I would recommend it to anyone considering taking on the responsibilities of this job, or anyone who is just curious about a day in the life of a call-taker and dispatcher for an emergency service.  Burau has done a wonderful job of describing this important, mysterious and sometimes heart wrenching job.

On a final note – to everyone who has worked the telephone lines and radio airwaves for emergency services (police departments in particular) I would like to say thank you.  You are amazing people with a resolve I find inspiring.  I know what fills your days and it still gives me chills sometimes.  Thank you for helping to keep us safe, thank you for calming us on the worst days of our lives and thank you, so much, for helping us.

Britney Spears – Till The World Ends


6 Responses to “Book review: Answering 911 by Caroline Burau”

  1. C May 22, 2011 at 6:18 pm #

    Can I borrow that sometime? You usually only talked about the funny calls or the fact that the job was stressful, so it would be interesting to read, more specifically, about what your job entailed.

    • vyxen May 22, 2011 at 6:46 pm #

      Of course! If we ever get together again I will lend it to you! 🙂

  2. Dee May 22, 2011 at 10:26 pm #

    Good review. I will have to pick one this up! Thanks.

    • vyxen May 22, 2011 at 10:58 pm #

      My pleasure Miss! It’s a very interesting read, for sure. 🙂

      • Dee May 23, 2011 at 7:08 pm #

        Yikes! Did I post this while pounding back an entire bottle of tequila? HA! I fucked up my words quite well. Nice. I must be a writer 😛

        Ah well…I WILL pick one up for sure. 🙂

  3. vyxen May 23, 2011 at 8:59 pm #

    You know? It’s funny – I didn’t even notice (kind of like the words that are completely misspelled, but as long as the first and last letter are correct our brain figures it out?). Way to go, Yoda!

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