From Heart Attacks to Massacres, 911 Operators Hear It All

Emergency dispatchers who handle 911 calls are often the first to hear of unfolding disasters, even horrors, as panicked or terrified callers try to explain what's happening and where they are. After getting police, fire or medical vehicles racing to the scene, the phones keep ringing and must be answered, leaving dispatchers with little chance to digest what just occurred or even know how it ended. It is a stressful job that can take a psychological and emotional toll on dispatchers.

Here is a sample of the stress -- and satisfaction -- experienced by 911 operators.

Life of Constant Crises Takes Emotional Toll on 911 Operators

PHOTO: Brooklyn Mundo, 24, of Casselberry, Fla., was a 911 call-taker for three-and-a-half years.
Scott Cook
Brooklyn Mundo

Age: 24

Location: Casselberry, Florida

Years in the profession: 3.5

Brooklyn Mundo was the dispatcher on duty when four people were gunned down inside of a Casselberry hair salon in October 2012.

"There are maybe four or five calls that are ingrained in my memory that I will never forget and the salon shooting is one of them. The calls that I found to be most difficult are the calls where both the victim and the operator feel helpless.

"In that situation, there's a partial language barrier, there was a delay. You always think to yourself, if I could have done this a few seconds faster, if I could have done this a little sooner, maybe that person's life would have been saved. And you really can't think about that or else you'll destroy yourself.

"For me, when it came to processing that, I would stay calm and cool, I would do my job excellently and then I would hang up the phone and I would go outside and I would cry. I would sit on the back patio and I would just weep for 5-10 minutes because that's the most we had, and then I'd have to suck it up, brush it off, go back in and take another call."

PHOTO: Dee Ann Summersett, 48, is an emergency operator in Tuscola County, Mich., and has been in the profession since 1992.
Courtesy Dee Ann Summersett
Dee Ann Summersett

Age: 48

Location: Tuscola County, Michigan

Years in the profession: 21

Her first week on the job, at the end of a shift, an elderly man had a heart attack and died on the phone with her before the ambulance could arrive. The same scenario happened her second and third weeks. During her fourth week, right before Christmas, she received a call from a home day care for a baby in full arrest, suffering from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. The baby did not survive.

"It hit me so hard I wasn't even sure if I wanted to stay. I wasn't sure if this was something I could really do. You know, you just feel like you're the curse so it was just a really tough time for me.

"I've been here for 20 years and I've carried that. That's pain that just doesn't go away. You just carry that forever with you, as the families do. That baby wasn't my family, but I still feel the pain."

PHOTO: Rae-Lynne Dicks, 46, of Vancouver, Canada has been an emergency call-taker for 10 years.
Courtesy Rae-Lynne Dicks
Rae-Lynne Dicks

Age: 46

Location: Vancouver, BC

Years in the profession: 10

"It's kind of like imagining in your brain you have a filing cabinet with a bunch of drawers. Some are for home, some are short-term, some are simple things like grocery lists, to-do lists for the days off. And then you have this one drawer that's full of trauma you've heard and calls that you've participated in, travesties that are so outrageous that they're unrepeatable.

"And when that drawer gets full, it can't close. And it starts to bleed out all over the rest of your life. You come to expect the worst of your friends, your family. You start to distrust normal people who haven't had the experiences you have. You start to have anxiety issues over going to certain places where you know horrible things have happened in the past. And for me, personally, I started to experience night terrors and flashbacks.

"Because I don't see the actual scene, what happened within my own psyche is that people in an incident were replaced by my friends, family members and loved ones. The awful thing about it is you don't know whether it was real or not."

PHOTO: John Graham, 32, of East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana, has been a 911 dispatcher for 13 years.
Courtesy John Graham
John Graham

Age: 32

Location: East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana

Years in the profession: 13

"It's a constant ping pong. Just today I had a guy call to report his bike stolen and then the very next call I had was a baby that wasn't breathing. I obligate myself to have to stay calm, no matter what the call is because if I'm worked up and not able to communicate with them properly, it's just really not going to be beneficial to anyone.

"I like being able to help people, to wake up in the morning and go home at the end of the day knowing you made a difference in somebody's life."

Victoria

Age: 42

Location: Massachusetts

Years in the profession: 17

"You get the call when it's at its most intense. The person calls 911 when they're at their most chaotic and most terrified because nobody is there yet, so you're the first person. And the first person in on any type of scene is controlling the chaos, so that's what we have to do, essentially, as soon as we pick up the phone is help control the chaos.

"Then you hang up the call at the most heightened state. The emergency services people get there and take care of the call. But you have to remember that we're still there and we have absolutely no idea what's going on. We're using our imaginations and we're thinking the worst about what's going on at the scene because we're not there.

"I can't imagine doing anything else, God help me."

PHOTO: Elaina Fincher, 28, of Columbus, Ga., has been in the 911 call-taking profession for a decade.
Courtesy Elaina Fincher
Elaina Fincher

Age: 28

Location: Columbus, Georgia

Years in the profession: 10

"Really and truly what I want people to know is that our job isn't just another job. We endure a lot of stress in the job itself and then you also have to deal with at-home life as well. People need to understand that we're humans, too.

"We have emotions and we have our breakdowns, but I want people to know that we deserve credit. It's always police officers that save the day, it's always firefighters save the day... It's us too. And we are the first responders."

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