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Please Don't Put Me on Hold Again: Perspective from a Dispatcher's Spouse
Author: Hollie Freeman
Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
It’s 4 P.M. on a Friday evening and I’m racing home alongside interstate commuters, passing smiling faces that I know are just as excited as I am to greet the weekend and leave work behind for a couple of days. I have the radio blasting, my hair up and am edging past the speed limit. Overly excited, I’m heading home to get dressed for dinner and a movie with the guy I’ve only seen in passing all week - my husband Chris. I work first shift; he works second and sometimes third. His request to take the night off - since this is not one of his RDO’s (Regular Days Off) - was approved, so this is an opportunity that is few and far between and one we have been planning for weeks in advance; as you can imagine, date night and a 9 o’clock feature can’t come soon enough.
In the back of my mind I kept thinking, this isn’t a guaranteed day off; as a matter of fact, no day off is a guaranteed day off for him. Regardless of the fact his position title includes the word Supervisor, that only means the agency needs him more and he carries an on-call status more often. To affirm my worst fears, the thoughts kept running through my mind about the week he asked off for our honeymoon only to come back and have to put in 7 days straight for the gesture; or, even worse, the week of my college graduation he requested off for months in advance, only to be called in since he had requested compensatory days instead of vacation days. Apparently, that technicality was the difference in being able to be required to come in. Probably the time that bothered me the most was when he was denied the day off to walk the line the year he graduated college which required an appeal to his Lieutenant. Thinking back, Chris probably would have never appealed the denial if he hadn’t vested so much in his education and I hadn’t so boldly voiced my disgust in his missing this once in a lifetime event. But maybe tonight is our night and I am going to remain positive.
Anyone who has worked in management understands the complications of staffing, and in fact, anyone who has supervised a PSAP knows the great burden of ensuring one or more telecommunicators to cover every shift, seven days a week, 365 days a year. It’s overwhelming to contemplate with the shortage of funding for proper staffing, the high turnover rate, the physical and emotional stressors that many telecommunicators face, and the problems that burn-out syndrome causes with employees. Pile all that on staff wanting to make it to birthday parties, weddings, vacations, and a day to de-stress here and there and you can compare it to a never-ending game of Tetris. It puts things into perspective when you consider how many times have you lost a game of Tetris! The job is complicated. It takes dedication. It takes putting everything else on the backburner. In fact, all those people you love so much, the ones you are trying to make a hard-earned wage to support, end up coming last. By its nature, the job is the priority and if it’s not, then you didn’t make the cut. I respect his dedication and his passion for his work. He takes pride in what he does and has the heart of a humanitarian.
My guy wasn’t always the best telecommunicator though. If you asked Chris, he would probably agree with me. In the early days, he spent his nights taking calls he didn’t want to deal with. Talking to callers he rarely understood, dismissing their predicaments as self-imposed messes that they should have known better than to get themselves into - rather than being victims of their economical and sociological environments. Oh, and there is the caller that used 9-1-1 as a self-help hotline or a social call rather than its intended purpose of emergency communications. You’ve all been there for the crazy call you didn’t really give any credit to and after the fact realized you realized you were complacent.
For Chris, that occurred on the night a gentleman called and told him he wanted two troopers to escort him to the local church that next Sunday morning because he was going to proclaim to the congregation his identity – Jesus Christ, the living Savior. Chris, not giving him any merit, told him that if he was truly Jesus Christ he didn’t believe he needed a trooper escort. Come Sunday morning, “Jesus Christ” made his appearance at the local church house, the police department had to respond, and a physical altercation ensued. Still today, it bothers Chris to talk about it. It was a mistake. The outcome of the actions of this mentally ill caller could have been worse. But every time the phone rings, a telecommunicator must face the chance of the same fate.
Humans make mistakes but for telecommunicators the mistakes can cost people their lives. The weight of the world is on their shoulders every moment of every hour they are on shift, and then every waking moment after the call they may have handled wrong. PTSD and emotional stressors are silent killers in this profession. Chris dealt with his emotions with food. I watched him balloon to 405 pounds. He had lost himself in the pressures of being confined to a console, rarely able to get a bathroom break. Food delivery and the snack machine were his best friends on his late shifts. Unlike the officers he protected every day, the ones who depended on him for their lifeline, he didn’t have a fitness standard. He had no physical training requirement, access to a gym or a fitness coach. And he was not much different than the rest of those telecommunicators he worked with.
There was a reason that the radio room chairs kept breaking and they had to invest in the $900 special that two healthy bodied individuals could sit side by side in with a rating of 500-600 lbs. As a spouse, I love my guy unconditionally, but I kept wondering why the agency doesn't see the trend in the radio room. They are concerned with the wellbeing of their sworn officers, but they invest nothing in the mental and physical care for the team of special professionals without whom those officers could not safely perform their job.
I arrived home to find Chris ready and excited to spend the night with me. It was truly happening! I imagine it’s what winning the lottery feels like, only I knew at the end of the night I would face the “I’ve blown all the money” reality. But for now, I would take what I could get and I would make it enough to get me through!
Not far into the night, the phone rang. It was work. There was a trooper-involved shooting. You know the rest. It sucked. With every ounce of my being I hated it. I hated it all. But Chris was a dedicated dispatcher. He was passionate about his work and his profession, and because of it he has become a highly-effective law enforcement instructor teaching telecommunicators.
His students can relate to him, they can understand and connect with him on a personal level. He has faced the fire, he has made the same mistakes, and he is ok with admitting it. He has also had his triumphs. One night while training a new telecommunicator, a call you never want to have to take came in, the call for which he received the Kentucky State Police Commissioner’s Commendation when he helped save the life of an off-duty Sherriff’s Deputy from Ohio who had been kidnapped at gunpoint by her boyfriend, then bungeed-corded to a car seat while he used a box cutter to lacerate her abdomen multiple times. As the assailant was escaping down the interstate, the last phone ping showed the car at MM 97 coming into a trooper post district. Chris’ quick thinking and multitasking ability allowed him to get 4 units to an interception location at MM87; if he missed this window it would be another 25 miles before another intercept location was possible, and for this deputy she may not have had that long. The kidnapper had already allowed her a last goodbye phone call. The troopers intercepted them and during the 30-mile pursuit that followed, the radio room became a symphony of movements that required precision and specialized training, resulting in the successful rescue of the deputy and apprehension of boyfriend. Chris handled it well, and the new dispatcher received a valuable training opportunity while it all went down.
Watching him receive the award that day, I loved the job. I loved it all. The long hours, the days I didn’t get to see him, the days he requested and didn’t get to take off. They didn’t matter. I was so proud of him. His efforts had trickled down and lives would be affected by his goodwill. He made a difference for that deputy and her young kids. The officers who helped rescue her got to stand beside Chris that day because he helped ensure they were safe in their retrieval of her. I was proud to be a dispatcher’s wife that day.
The thankless job that a dispatcher does is hard. It’s harder for their family. I saw the struggles he went through. I lived the days that seemed unfair for him and for me. Because we didn’t have kids he always got stuck working holidays. I understood kids needed their parents on Christmas, but it didn’t mean I didn’t need Chris as well – and, by the way, didn’t seniority matter in this situation? Maybe I was being too selfish, but on the other hand, maybe on those days that I shared my husband with the people he served, he made a difference for someone who needed him more than I did just then. And if that is the case, then it was all worth it.
Hollie Freeman lives and works in London, Kentucky. Her experience, content knowledge, and passion for the field of criminal justice and the high standards required of law enforcement personnel have inspired her to take interest in the cultivation of 9-1-1 professionals. Hollie has eight years’ experience in law enforcement; 5 ½ years with the Kentucky State Police Automated Fingerprint Identification Section as a Fingerprint Examiner and AFIS Systems Administrator; ten years of supervisory and leadership experience; she has taught several semesters as a Collegiate Adjunct Professor in the field of Criminal Justice and is currently. While continuing graduate work with Eastern Kentucky University, Hollie is working with Chris' company, Emergent Public Safety Training Solutions, a company dedicated to training 9-1-1 and law enforcement professionals. Her role as a PR and Marketing Manager is secondary to helping develop curriculum and course content that intertwines criminological theory and content to offer 9-1-1 professionals a scholarly-based opportunity in the classroom.