From Car Lot To Headset
April 18, 2023
Dispatch in Action
The first round of shots sounded like small fireworks. The second round drew Marissa Wittmann’s attention to the busy Las Vegas (Nevada, USA) strip on the borders of the music festival she was attending. Where was the noise coming from? When she heard the third round of shots, she was up and running for her life.
“There was no time to think; it was fight or flight,” said Wittmann, who was attending the three-day Route 91 Harvest Festival with a group of friends. It was Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017, a few minutes past 10 p.m., and country music singer Jason Aldean was giving the closing performance.
The mass shooting unfolded so suddenly. Chaos. Fear. Confusion. Thousands of people fleeing a shooter high above the crowd inside the Mandalay Bay.
“There was one way in and one way out,” said Wittmann, who had flown in from Sacramento, California (USA), for the event. “People were getting trampled, [there was] blood everywhere. People were throwing others over the fence to get them to a safer place.”
Wittmann broke free by crawling under a section of the chain-link security fence held up from the ground. Having been separated from her friends, Wittmann bolted from behind a parked car and blended into a larger group. People outside the Tropicana casino resort waved the frantic concertgoers inside and guided them down a hallway to an empty office space. “People were in shock, overwhelmed,” Wittmann said. “There was no cell coverage. We couldn’t get through to anyone. We were safe, and all we could do was wait it out.”
Wittmann and her friends reunited at the Tropicana. She caught her 6:30 a.m. flight home the next morning still dressed in the clothes she wore to the concert, including a cowboy hat and boots. She was tired, numb. Her emotions surfaced two days later. Wittmann had bad dreams when she was able to sleep, which wasn’t much. She felt guilty for not having stopped to help the wounded. She went back to her customer service management position at a car dealership.
Wittmann’s mental health recovery depended on therapy. Sixty people dead, hundreds wounded, and many who might never fully recover from the carnage. Through it all, she held onto a single silver lining. “There were so many people jumping in to help,” she said. “They stopped, risked their own lives, to give CPR, apply tourniquets. They knew what to do. They inspired me.”
That’s when it hit her hard. Where was her life heading? Wittmann held a good job, “but there was a piece missing,” she said. “I wasn’t doing anything with my life. It lacked fulfillment.”
Wittmann asked a friend, an Emergency Dispatcher, whether she was made of the right stuff for 911. “She said I would be great but cautioned me to think hard about giving up what I had for long hours, overtime, and working holidays. The concert led me to a final jump.”
Working on Wittmann’s side was her ability to stay calm in an emergency. She thrives under pressure. Wittmann applied at the Sacramento County 911 Communications Center and started the job in September 2021. She works 12-hour shifts and overtime, but she feels fortunate to have found a career that suits her and that she’s passionate about.
“I found a way to give back,” she said. “My only regret is not having done this sooner.”
Wittmann relishes the silver linings, like the call in which she gave CPR instructions to a girl trying to resuscitate her grandmother. The grandmother survived.
The ill-fated concert in Las Vegas helps her in emergency dispatch. She can sympathize and relate to callers in serious situations. “I know what it feels like to be on the other end of that phone,” she said. She never thinks her experience trumps another’s emergency. “It’s not my place to judge. I am here to help people in any way I can. I have the best job in the world.”