A Day in the Life of a 911 Dispatcher : 1

In Uncategorized on November 29, 2010 at 12:00 am

The following is a story I wrote for Pittsburgh Magazine in 2006. This feature is my proudest contribution. It concerns a day in the life of a 911 dispatcher during the holiday season. Photograph of missing person sign, Bloomington, Indiana.

3:39 p.m. – Marissa Williams sits in her tall ergonomic chair, and her eyes are large and attentive, gazing intently at her five computer screens. Dressed in a navy-blue commando sweater, Williams spends the entire night wearing a headset – one ear covered by a radio, the other ear free. The headset has a control pad that dangles from her neck, and she presses a button to respond to her first major call of the day: A “drive-off,” meaning a driver who filled his car with gas and then drove off without paying for it. The station attendant reads the license plate to her, and she types it into her computer. Suddenly she can read all about this car – whether it’s registered, insured, to whom it belongs. “This happens all the time,” she says. “People sometimes just forget to pay for it. We track them down and remind them to go back and pay. It’s not a big deal.”

3:43 – Leah, who dispatches nearby, taps Williams on the shoulder and asks if she wants take-out. This is a nightly ritual – Williams and her 40 to 50 colleagues sit in the enormous, low-lit call center, answering the calls of victims and police officers, firefighters and EMT’s. And each night, between shootings and car accidents and seizures, they order take-out from any of a hundred restaurants – pizza, Chinese, wraps, hoagies, anything that will fill them up, keep them energized. They have a black binder full of take-out menus, labeled “South Zone Menu.” Tonight, Williams decides not to order – she has two french-bread pizzas in the break-room refrigerator. Instead, she takes her Pepsi bottle, which is now full of tap water, and empties a packet of flavored powder into it. Williams and her colleagues call these “shakies,” and they’re all addicted: Hawaiian Punch, Lipton iced tea, lemonade, Gatorade, the options are endless. “I also love Red Bull,” she says. “I don’t know what I’d do without it.”

3:49 – A caller notifies Williams about a parked car by the highway. The engine is emitting smoke. By the time police arrive at the scene, the smoking has dwindled. “Police on scene,” she types into her log. “Nothing showing.” When asked to rate the night so far, on a scale of one to 10, Williams just giggles. “This is like a three,” she says. “This is nothing.”


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