Answering 911: Life in the Hot Seat by Caroline Burau
A quick and enjoyable read about life as a 911 dispatcher. I was enthralled by some of the logistical details Burau described – because she worked as a dispatcher for an area that crossed multiple boundaries for police/fire/ambulance, she would have to quickly determine which was the appropriate responding agency. The specifics she gave as to what all that seemingly simple task entailed had me shaking my head in wonder at keeping it all straight while trying to remain calm and professional no matter what was on the other end of the line.
There are a few gruesome stories, so if you’re squeamish you may want to steer clear. If you’re looking for lots of stories about crazy calls and such, this isn’t really that book either. They’re there, but not the focus of the book, which instead is about being that person answering the calls. How do you handle hearing some of those things, and how do you handle never knowing how things got resolved? How do you manage with daily reminders of how fragile life is?
You answer a call from a fourteen-year-old boy asking for someone to arrest his mother, who is smoking crack in their bathroom. You talk with him until the cops arrive, making sure there are no weapons around and learning that his favorite subject in school is lunch. Five minutes later, you have to deal with someone complaining about his neighbor’s clarinet practice. What is it like to be on the receiving end of desperate calls for help . . . every day? Caroline Burau, a former newspaper reporter and nursing student who couldn’t stand the sight of blood, takes a job as an emergency dispatcher because she likes helping people. But on-the-job training at the comm center proves to be more than she bargained for. As she adjusts to a daily life of catastrophe and comedy, domestics and drunks, cops and robbers, junk food and sarcasm, lost cats and suicides, she discovers that crisis can become routine, that coworkers can be mean—that she must continue to care and, at times, learn how to let go.
While I’ve never read any other memoir by a 911 dispatcher, many aspects of Burau’s story reminded me of Michael Perry’s book Population: 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time, about his experiences as a volunteer EMT.
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