Friday night at 9-1-1

Call to 911
Call to 911

Have you ever watched TV shows like “Rescue 9-1-1”, and wondered about the scenes of the dispatchers working through an emergency? The ones where the show cuts back and forth from the caller’s perspective to the dispatcher, where the 9-1-1 operator works through the situation to get help going? Well, it’s almost never like that. Let me tell you about last night, working at 9-1-1.

It’s Friday night.  It’s also summer in the valley, with daytime highs near or over 100 degrees F.  And it’s a full Moon. Surveys, studies, logic and the scientific method assure us that there is no “full Moon effect”, but you’d be hard pressed to find any 9-1-1 dispatchers who don’t believe it’s real.  Personally, I don’t, but sometimes I’m hard pressed to remember that. Last night was one of those nights. Let’s dive in.

9 1/2 hours of a ten hour shift on channel two, on a Friday night (they do let us out for 30 minutes for lunch). A full Moon. In August. For most of the night, 25 units on my channel. All it takes is one to decide to do a traffic stop, then suddenly ALL of them want to do traffic stops! It’s especially fun when the gang suppression or car theft teams are out and about.

Fights. Parties. Loud music. More fights.

Oddly, no barking dog calls tonight.

More loud music.  Always loud music.

Reckless drivers. Drunk drivers. A couple of traffic accidents. Several ambulance runs, one a 15 day old difficulty breathing, one 84 year old difficulty breathing.

Shots heard. They’re strange, shots heard calls: sometimes we only get one call from a crowded neighborhood, other times we get dozens.  Cops dispatched.

Child exchanges, dispatch a cop to “keep the peace”.  Wonder at people that need the cops to exchange kids. Child exchanges that didn’t happen, and the other parent is pissed. Send a cop for that. Breakups with kids can get nasty. Midnight checks because the non-custodial parent is “worried” about the children.  99% of the time they’re fine, and were woke up by the police at the door.  Way to go, other parent.

Welfare check because somebody on Facebook was fishing for attention and “seemed” suicidal. He’s fine. She didn’t get his “joke”.

More traffic stops.  Everybody and their grandma is on the road tonight, and they’re all forgetting the vehicle code.

Abandoned cars. People pulled over on the side of the road and being “suspicious”…. as they talked on their cell phones for 20 minutes.  Good for them, no driving while on the phone.

Drunks staggering down the shoulder of the road. Gotta find a cop to check it out, but they’re all busy on other stuff. Like loud music.

Yeah, more loud music calls.

Crappy radios…”10-9?”  “it’s the heat” “it’s the cold” “it’s the fog” “it’s the rain” <– reasons for crappy radio transmissions.

Units chomping at the bits to join the CHP’s pursuit before it runs out of the county. It ran out of the county.

Bar brawl, send a bunch of cops, and an ambulance needed. Then, a second ambulance needed. Laceration and “asthma” (panic) attack.

Teenager calling in and harassing the dispatchers. Vulgar. Threatening. Dozens of times. Not bright, we know who he is.

Cookies in dispatch. Didn’t last long. Somebody bring us donuts, too, please.

Air unit doing patrol checks. Three at a time. Put him on one, take him off. Update city unit that keyed up immediately after. Put air unit on second patrol check, take him off. Respond to deputy doing a traffic stop. Put air unit on last check, take him off. Other units trying to talk all at once.  It’s one at a time, folks, sorry.

Answer the 9-1-1 line, because everybody else in the room is already on a phone, and there are 4 lines ringing. Lucky, just a quick transfer to CHP, off the phone quick. 

More loud music. “How come we never do anything about it?? I’ve called a bunch of times!”   “No, I don’t want contact, just make them stop!”

Direct the young lady who has decided at 6:30 pm on a Friday that she’d like information on becoming a police officer to call back Monday during business hours to talk to somebody about it.  Phones are ringing off the hook while she’s asking questions.  Or they would be if they had hooks, anymore.  Now, the computer screen is blinking at me, and the speakers are “ringing” that annoying 9-1-1 tone.  

Another party! According to the caller, it’s all about that bass.  “I have to get up at 4am!”  

Racing vehicles… give it to CHP.  Stop sign down, call sign maintenance. Malfunctioning traffic light.  That’s on a state highway, call CHP for Caltrans.

Send a deputy to assist CHP on another call, because the car they stopped has a fight between a man and woman in progress. CHP doesn’t do domestics. (but to be fair, we don’t do traffic accidents)

Burglar alarms sounding, owners will only respond if it’s an actual burglary. Oh, look, the motion sensor was tripped by that hanging sign under the air conditioning vent. 

Phone rings, everybody is on another line, so grab it – “I just got home, and I was robbed!”  “Someone robbed you?”  “Yes, I’ve been robbed!”  “What did he look like?”  “I don’t know, I wasn’t here!”  (oh, the caller was burgled, not robbed.  They’re different things in my world). Add it to the list of calls waiting.

More loud music.

The tweeker is reporting a break-in, not sure what’s missing, but they’re sure something was taken.

It’s Friday night, the teenager has been missing since Wednesday morning, but the parents have decided they better go ahead and report it now.

Betty calls in and graces us with what we’ve come to call “Bettyisms”…  tonight’s is mild, more akin to a blessing than anything else.  Some from the past:  “Our family cow, named Betsy, my sister tried to claim her for herself, so my Mother made my Daddy sell it“.  Another:  “They didn’t heed to the doctors warning or to Betty’s advice, so they are either dead or doing lousy“.  We say, “OK, thanks, Betty, bye!”  She laughs, and hangs up happy.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

And that’s just what I can tell you about.

I’ve been doing this now for 21 years, 2 months, and about 3 weeks.  I can’t imagine anything I’d rather do to earn a paycheck.  I really do love my job.  Even after 21 years of the same thing over and over, it’s never the same thing.  It’s an amazing career, and I work with amazing people.  Between the dispatchers and the deputies and officers, the brass that tries to keep what has to sometimes seem like herding cats going in the right direction, and the public who expects top-flight service no matter what, this job is like no other.

My Friday night was ten hours of roller coaster riding at it’s best, and at the end of the shift, everybody went home in one piece.  Well, a few went to jail, but that’s a different story.

Disclaimer: Not an official anything from any agency.  Some details changed to protect privacy. Just an overview of one dispatcher’s night at work.  Multiply that by thousands across the country, and tens of thousands around the world, in dispatch centers everywhere.  “9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”

The REAL “American Exceptionalism”

americans_franceWe often hear politicians pontificate about “American Exceptionalism”.  It’s often a mindless soundbite, designed to appeal to the vanity of voters, and can be meaningless.  This weekend in France, three young American men showed the world the true meaning of that phrase.  With the help of a British businessman, they subdued an armed terrorist who opened fire on passengers on a European bullet train in France.

In the picture above, from left to right, Alek Skarlatos, Spencer Stone, and Anthony Sadler lept into action when a 26 year old Moroccan national tried to shoot passengers on the train to Paris.  Skarlatos, with the Oregon National Guard, Air Force airman Stone, their civilian friend Sadler, and British national Chris Norman subdued the terrorist, who was armed with a Kalishnikov rifle, 300 rounds of ammunition, knives, and a handgun, according to Britain’s Daily Mail.

Unarmed themselves, they immediately took action to stop the shooter, later identified as a member of a terrorist group that European authorities had dealt with in the past.  Stone was injured during the take-down, and is reported to have tended to the injuries of others before allowing his own to be treated.

President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande have commended the men, with President Obama speaking to them by phone, and the French President to meet them Sunday.  Although not mentioned in reporting, I suspect a visit to the White House is being arranged.

Reminiscent of 9/11’s Todd Beamer aboard United Airlines Flight 93, who said “Okay, are you ready? Let’s roll” when passengers took action to stop the hijackers, Skarlatos yells “Spencer, go!” as the three Americans leapt into action.

I often cringe when I hear the term “American Exceptionalism”.  It’s often a cover term for Americans acting badly, putting our own political interests and corporate profits ahead of the peoples of other regions.  Another term that might apply in most cases is “American Imperialism”.  This event, however, is the kind of thing we should mean when we talk about our exceptionalism.  These men and their actions give us the moral and ethical authority to make such boasts.

This heroic action does present a major problem for the NRA, however. It’s clear that it does NOT take “a good guy with a gun” to stop “a bad guy with a gun”.  All it takes is bravery, and a little luck.  How many more would have been injured or killed, if a shoot-out between the gunman and passengers had occurred?  Can you imagine the carnage that would have been evident if this event had happened in, say, Texas? (Assuming, of course, that Texas had a high speed bullet train. That’s a stretch, I know.  We have people fighting the idea here in California, so…  Texas? But, I digress.)  More guns would have simply resulted in a body count, rather than a roster of injuries.  I wonder how the NRA will spin this, if they even mention it.

Kudos and thanks to Skarlatos, Stone, and Sadler for their bravery and for representing the best of the United States.  They truly are exceptional Americans.


“The willing suspension of disbelief”


“The willing suspension of disbelief”.  It’s how we enjoy a movie about a superman, or a batman, or some sappy love story.  We play along, and hope to find it entertaining.  Sometimes the movie or television show is done so well that no matter what happens we go along for the ride, whether it’s with the crazy man in the blue box, the people at the hotel in Budapest, or chasing ghosts in an old Cadillac ambulance.  We don’t care at all how “out there” it might get, we just enjoy the story. Sometimes, however, things just jump out at you, and make you groan.  For me, it’s California license plates.

Hollywood is the heart of television and movies in the United States.  Many stories are told in a California setting, and if they involve vehicles, you’ll likely see a California license plate.  Sometimes studios get it right, and the plates don’t jump out at me in their productions.  Usually, though, the prop master, or whoever provides the vehicles needed for the shot, hasn’t a clue about license plates.  I don’t know if they have a stack of plates they slap on a vehicle, picking whatever state matches the location in the shoot, or just how that all works.  What I do notice is when they get it wrong.

California has a multitude of license plate types.  From regular passenger car plates to commercial plates, trailer and motorcycle plates, HAM and CB radio plates, vanity plates, and government vehicle plates, the list seems endless.  It’s a challenge teaching new dispatchers how to differentiate between them all, and how to query the DMV database when a deputy or officer makes a traffic stop.  The point is, each plate type goes with a particular type of vehicle, most of the time.  The movies or television shows pull me right out of my suspension of disbelief when they get it wrong.

In the image above, a screen shot from the LGBT comedy (you knew I couldn’t write another blog without working that in somehow, right?) “Geography Club”, the pickup pulls into the scene, it’s California license plate clearly visible.  Oops.  Wrong plate for a pickup truck.

A pickup truck has a commercial plate.  That’s a passenger car plate.  Pickups can only have a passenger plate if they have a camper permanently attached.  No camper or shell on that truck.  Scene disrupted for me.  It’ll take a moment to get back into the story.

It happens fairly frequently.  I’ve seen a few shows where the plate is supposed to be California, even down to the colors and fonts, but the number/letter sequence is totally random.  That’s worse than the wrong plate on the wrong vehicle.

I try to tell that part of my brain to shush, just watch the show, but it keeps pestering me.  “But it’s wrong!” it keeps fussing at me. “Oh,” I tell it, “and phasers and warp speed and transporters are no biggy, but you obsess over license plates??”

“That’s different!” I’ll hear.  “Shush! Watch the show, I just missed an important plot point because you’re fussing over the license plate!”

Off that part of the brain goes, muttering what sounds like “I don’t care, it’s still wrong.”

I’ll work my way back into the story, but I continue to scan other vehicles, to see if they have the wrong plates.  It can get quite distracting.

One other thing.  Does nobody in the movies understand how a two-way radio works?  You have to let go of the button on the microphone in order to hear what the other person is saying to you.  And keying up and interrupting them doesn’t work, either.  Until they finish talking, and let go of *their* mic button, they won’t hear your demand that they do whatever it is you need them to do to save the world.  Unless you are working full duplex, but almost no radios work that way.  Especially the ones you cobbled together from the junk laying around on the weird scientist’s workbench.

Oops. “That” part of my brain must have grabbed the keyboard while I was trying to suspend my disbelief.  Sorry.


Image: screen cap, Geography Club.

5,000 years ago, cats were worshiped as gods. They’ve never forgotten that.


There was a cat show in town this weekend, and it got me to thinking about Grace, a cat who wandered into my life in 1995, and stayed for a decade and a half.  My Mother and sisters always had cats around, but until Grace came along, cats were somewhat shady characters that you had to be careful around, as they were armed with claws and incredibly sharp teeth that would be wielded at the slightest provocation.  My childhood experiences with cats might have had something to do with my general disinterest in them as pets.

When I was about 11 or 12, we had a mamma cat, and in the course of (a short period of) time, we had more.  We whittled the resulting herd down to two, the original mamma cat, and one of her daughters.  The daughter cat was nice enough, but Mamma cat was a hellion.  We named her “Endora”, after Samantha’s mother on the 60’s TV show “Bewitched”.  Endora came to an ignoble end, when we had to have her put down after she attacked one of my sister’s friends, and the injuries required stitches.  Up until that point, she had only been unfriendly, but the attack sealed her fate.

Other cats came and went through the years.  I remember Sam, a Siamese-mix that was a good household pet.  It was strange, at the end of his life, when he suffered a stroke, and his personality was suddenly gone.  His body was alive, but when you looked into his eyes, there was no “Sam” there anymore.  My Mother and sisters have had cats continuously, but Sam was the last one I was fond of personally.

Fast forward to 1995.  I was working at my current job, as a 9-1-1 dispatcher at the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office.  At the time, there was a feral cat colony living at the county complex, subsisting on trash and whatever rodent-type critters they might catch.  We might have also been buying them cat food and feeding them during the graveyard shift, but you didn’t hear that from me.  Eventually, the county “solved” the problem, and I don’t want to know how.

Before they did, one evening I was returning from my dinner break, when one of the young cats, who usually scattered whenever any of us came near them, came up to me, as if to introduce herself.  She wasn’t a kitten, but was not a fully grown cat, either. I didn’t expect that she would let me pet her, let alone pick her up, but she did.  I petted her for a bit, then put her down, intending to go in to finish my shift.  She immediately began rubbing my legs, and made no attempt to leave.  I picked her up, took her in with me, and called my roommate to come get her, as we had just been adopted by a cat.

After about a week, I named her Grace.  It was short for ‘graceless’.  After she had been at my house for a few days, I began noticing an apparent impairment.  She would be walking across the carpet (very low cut), and stumble.  She would go to jump up onto the couch and miss, hitting her chin on the cushion as she tumbled to the floor.  She would eventually get on the couch, only to fall off as she walked along it’s back.  I thought my cat had no sense of balance!

She finally figured it out, however, and her inglorious first days were soon forgotten.  She actually earned her short name, and could navigate as well as any other cat.

For the first few years, she was independent, and like most cats, aloof.  She would accept petting, but only on her terms, at times of her own choosing.  To much would result in claws and teeth, too little with a nasty look that said “I wasn’t done yet!”

In her senior years, she began to become more like a dog (don’t tell her I said that, if you ever run across her ghost), wanting to jump up into my lap whenever I was on the couch, usually watching TV.  When she was about ten, I went on a road trip of about two and a half weeks, and when I returned she followed me around the house for about four hours, with a plaintive meow, that sounded like “you’re not going to leave me again, are you???”  She was even more clingy after that.

Still, she was a good cat.  As the picture above shows, she liked to sit on the back of my desk chair, leaning on my back, and looking over my shoulder as I fiddled around on the computer.  I would write a blog as she sat there, and sometimes I’d look at her and say “what do you think? Does that work for you?”

Most times, she’d just look back at me, and give me a look that said “you’re asking a cat for a critique of your blogging? Really?”  Other times she’d look at the screen, then back at me, as if to say “you’re going with that?  OK, if you think it’s a good idea.”

Even though she had a bowl of fresh water always available, she liked to drink out of the bathroom sink faucet.  I’d turn the water on to a trickle, and she’d have her fill.  Later, I’d find her curled up in the sink, looking at me as if to say “what?”  She would sleep at the foot of my bed, and never once put her claws into the waterbed mattress (unlike another cat back when I was living at home).  Sometimes I’d wake up, and find her laying on the pillow next to me.

It was a sad time when I discovered a tumor growing in her lower jaw.  She was finding it difficult to eat, even when I switched her to wet food.  She was also unable to groom herself, something intolerable for a cat.  I took her to the vet, and we decided there was nothing that we could do, so I had her put down. (I hate the term “putting to sleep”. It’s not sleep. They aren’t going to wake up.)  Grace was with me for 15 or 16 years, and I don’t think there will be another like her.

Here’s to you, Grace.  You were a good cat, and I’m glad that out of all the humans you ran across, you picked me to adopt.