Denise Latta got me started in dispatching in July 2004:
If you ask me I will tell you I couldn't answer 911 in a big city. At first when I was hired in the summer of 2004 I thought to myself I could move from place to place and answer 911 for a living but I soon figured out this job wasn't nearly as portable as I would like. While it's true every 911 center in the country is looking to hire it can be arduous work beyond what I can manage in large cities filled with frequent acts of violence and serious crime. Long hours, mandatory overtime and no room for the slightest error can make 911 centers tough workplaces to handle. When concerned citizens call and complain about someone who they think "may be dead" or is simply making the town look bad to tourists by lying huddled on a sidewalk, I think of this guy using the exact same walker I graduated to, out of my hospital bed. I am not of the school who believes poverty is a sign of lack of moral character. Each life has its story and fear of sleeping on the streets in my old age has kept me harnessed to this very job. I got a call about Mick one day and the caller, a worried tourist was surprised I knew the sleeper who I said liked to pet my dog when he met him on our walks. I still had to send an officer to wake him up.
Next year I figure I will quit and run off to a retirement that will require nothing more arduous than driving the van and walking the dog and trying to figure out how to photograph new landscapes without churning out endless clichés. Somehow I made it through almost two decades of answering queries and sending help and listening to people rant. Sometimes I got it right and other times I got it wrong but aside from annoying a few callers I never failed to figure out who needed what where. I never missed an address such that someone died, I never sent an innocent person to jail (innocent in the sense that they did not have a warrant which was my sole concern, not what the jury ultimately decided). In that sense and the sense I got a pension it was a success. The calls that I gave a less than stellar response to are the ones that cause me some pain as I look back over a wobbly path of being annoying, of missing the point, of lacking empathy.
Less successful is the fact that I have been exposed to the worst of human nature, and the worst of circumstances and I can tell you that at the end of a three day weekend, 36 hours of work, I take my first day off and sleep and walk Rusty and say nothing to anybody except perhaps my wife. Police officers recoil in horror at the thought they might have to dispatch. One officer told me once that they only answer maybe one in ten calls as we send different officers on each shift to a different call for service. But because we collect all the calls that come to the police station and deal with them directly we answer one hundred percent of the complaints about life. The pay is good and steady, the benefits are astonishing as I discovered in the hospital. We, like every other employer in Key West are short staffed but that is a fact of life in the Keys where everyone is hiring and no one can afford to live here. I have been one of the lucky ones in Key West a town notorious for high turnover jobs and feeble pay combined with unaffordable housing. I make a living wage, I have first rate health insurance and I get a defined benefit pension plan, the crux of my longevity.
Most phone calls are nothing very interesting especially as we also transfer calls to the administrative offices in the building. The police station is just one more city department like any other, with bureaucratic needs and forms that need filling. On the other had there are of course the calls no one wants to make, and no one wants to think about. Part of my job is calling in support of the first responders asking questions of callers no one wants to ask. I also routinely call wreckers, the funeral home, the utility companies and so forth to help restore order in a suddenly disordered world. I have forgotten what it's like to have a normal job where everything isn't on the line, where death isn't just another incident, where Key West is more real than mythical tourist tales swapped over intoxicating drinks. My neighbors with whom we have occasional outdoor distanced dinners used to ask me how was work. I saw the look in their eyes when one day I absentmindedly told them a too detailed irritation about my day: they recoiled and never asked again. In some respects my job gives me leprosy. I tell strangers I work for the city of Key West and leave it at that.
I remember many more of the startling calls from the beginning of my career than what happened last week at work. After 17 years I get up from my desk, leave the six computer screens to night shift and walk out into the parking lot masked and ready to climb in the car and go home. By the time I'm accelerating on North Roosevelt I have forgotten pretty much the entire day that locked me to the desk for the past twelve hours. Over the years I have taken all the ghastly calls you can imagine involving death and dismemberment, human failure filled with lies and deceptions, but even human misery gets repetitive and dulls the senses. It's awful to say but it's true unfortunately. The worst call I have taken recently involved a couple who left their dog in the car to suffocate after three hours. By the time officers found it and broke the window it was too late. Everyone was crying and the station was filled with a blanket of mourning for a dog that died a ghastly death. You can imagine how I felt. Rusty was surprised by my intensity when I got home that night. You don't brush all of it under the carpet.
Most of what I do is try to help people handle mistakes and bad judgement. Most people aren't hard core criminals, even the ones who get arrested. Most are honestly stupid enough to make a bad call. I suppose all of us could be considered that stupid from time to time at particular moments in our lives. Most of us don't unleash our inner demons but those that do and get caught have to answer, and I am usually the first step in that process, the recipient of a call from a sobbing victim. That rationale keeps me from feeling hostility toward the social failures who get caught up in the legal system. The bums who get drunk and lose their bicycles, the single mothers who cry over custody issues, the tourists who park badly and get their cars towed, it's all endless grist for the police mill, a flow of minor failures, that magnify themselves into life changing events from time to time. I answer the phone, type in the details and send the call to whoever, police fire or rescue, is lucky enough to deal with it. Over and over again the format repeats itself, then I try to forget on the way home and take a few pictures of Nature doing her thing. I long to retire as I am convinced I was never cut out to be a serious employee with an actual career; it happened by accident your honor. I swear.
The fact is this job and this life in Key West was a massive challenge for me and for the most part I navigated the pitfalls of office life and office gossip with only a few failures along the way. I have been the object of gossip and anger and some of it I brought on myself with incautious comments too freely given, but after 17 years of high stress work I have managed to get to the end reasonably emotionally intact. That was the challenge I set for myself in July 2004 and here I am, still here, still answering phones and still reasonably civil with my colleagues. Some of us don't get along of course but the job overrides everything and I have never seen anyone let their animosities prevent them doing their duty. As I toil among workers so young, of a generation much derided, I have found that fact quite inspiring. For me, with all the shortcomings of my personality I rate my experience at the Department a success. I managed during the decades not to give up and quit though I came close a few times. Sometimes I expressed despair at the stress and didn't quit and I guess that was a good result considering I face the prospect of a properly funded old age now.
Which is to say the job has been a way for me to find personal inner growth after the first decades of my life which were footloose and fancy free filled with travel and unconcerned with future planning. The middle years I was lucky to live in Key West with a stable and forgiving job as hard as it has been, and the final chapter starts next year open ended, uncertain, and filled with promise. I hope I can handle it as any well prepared expedition to the edge of experience should be handled. The irony of course is that now I will be the bum sleeping in his car after decades of taking calls from outraged tax payers spotting bums sleeping in their cars. I hope I have learned a few tricks but when the cop eventually does knock on my door to move me on I shall say nothing about my previous career, but I will know I handled a job that would fill the cop writing me a ticket with fear and dread if anyone asked him to put down his gun and his badge and be a civilian dispatcher!