The language or codes used varies among jurisdictions, but no matter the jargon, it’s the call every emergency dispatcher hates to hear.
While researching my newest release, Officer Down, I reflected on my own career as a dispatcher. Sixteen years ago, I interviewed for a job as a 9-1-1 operator in a moderately-sized metropolitan dispatch center. I was just in my early twenties, and had never had a job with such weight or importance. We were trained for all types of emergencies, from those faced while answering 9-1-1 lines, to those we might hear while dispatching responders.
During our classroom training, our instructor played audio tapes (yes, they were on cassette, it was that long ago) of real-life incidents. In one case, an officer was shot and killed while assisting detectives who were serving a warrant. I also heard tapes of a bank robbery that resulted in a pursuit of the suspect. When the suspect opened fire, striking an officer, his K-9 partner attacked as he was trained to do, putting himself in front of the officer. The dog was shot and did not survive. As a brand new dispatcher these were not easy things to hear, but they helped prepare me for the job ahead.
But even that audio couldn’t completely prepare me for the first time I heard that urgency in an officer’s voice while behind the console myself. Imagine your favorite action movie scene, perhaps a chase or stand-off with a dangerous suspect. Then imagine you can’t see the scene, but can only hear it. And that you don’t get all the dialog, but just bursts, blurted updates and urgent requests given over a radio and into your headset. It’s your job to know where they are, send them back up, notify additional resources, such as a police helicopter, an ambulance, crime scene techs, or SWAT. You’ll also be running license plates, entering data into the incident log in the computer, and updating both your supervisors and those of the involved officers.
In Officer Down, Hillary O’Neal is an experienced dispatcher. She’s smart and takes pride her job. She has answered countless 9-1-1 calls, and spent thousands of hours at a dispatch console. She’s good—so good that when things go bad while she’s manning a radio channel, she handles everything exactly as she should. But even her quick action doesn’t prevent a bad outcome, nothing could have and she has a hard time dealing with the result.
While the driving incident in this story is a serious one, I hope I was also able to portray the camaraderie, the challenges and the rewards of my career. In my sixteen years, I have made life-long friendships. I have given life-saving CPR instructions. I have talked to a suicidal person for over fifteen minutes while officers searched for his actual location instead of the one he was giving me. I have managed resources for a twenty minute vehicle pursuit and a five alarm fire (not at the same time). I have even testified in court when a 9-1-1 call was the key piece of evidence in proving guilt. And in between all of the incidents that stand out, there were thousands of routine calls and even some mundane hours monitoring radio channels. Yes, when you’re working the midnight shift and the bars have already closed, there are just a few hours that could be described as mundane.
And now that readers know some of the inspiration for Officer Down, I hope they can feel Hillary’s passion for her job as well as her passion for Olivia Dennis.