December 3, 2014
By Audrey Fraizer
Brittany Miller had a gut feeling that something was wrong.
The muffled sound she heard over the open line wasn’t someone making a prank call, and she was sure that a cellphone pocket dial wasn’t the cause.
“It sounded like someone gasping, but it was so faint, it was hard to tell,” said Miller, an EMD for the Wasilla Police Department in Wasilla, Alaska. “But something about it told me this needed to be addressed.”
Open lines are common, Miller said.
The call had been answered by a calltaker, but the caller wasn’t responding. As is center policy, the telephone connection was established, and the line would remain open. If the call disconnected at some point after the calltaker had answered and no response was received from the caller, only then would the open line be considered a hang-up call.
Miller listened closely through her headset, picking up what she believed was a faint moan for help. She also heard what sounded like agonal breathing, which is a breathing pattern that lingers after the heart has essentially stopped pumping blood to the brain.
She acted on what she was hearing.
“I dispatched response immediately,” she said. “I don’t know if there was someone there who could hear me, but I said, ‘Help is on the way.’”
Miller stayed on the line, straining to distinguish a pattern of breathing and to identify background sounds that would tell her more about the situation and verify when help had arrived.
“I heard a dog barking and a trooper knocking on the door,” she said.
Once inside, the trooper reported a person, female, down. She wasn’t breathing. She was without a pulse.
The scene was a confirmation of what she had sensed from the start.
“The trooper didn’t have much hope and called over to Palmer,” Miller said.
Suddenly, the situation wasn’t so undecided.
“She moved her arm and turned her head,” Miller said. “The trooper gave CPR and was able to get her pulse back. She was transported to the hospital.”
The patient lived through her arrival to the ICU. She later died, crushing the high hopes Miller had for the woman’s survival. Miller takes comfort in recognizing the medical emergency, knowing that her instincts were correct and would again prove valuable in the EMD position she was hired to fill two years ago.
“A lot of what we do in communications is gut feeling,” she said. “With every call, you have to determine the priority and something about this call said, ‘We need to go now.’ I knew this couldn’t wait.”
Miller moved to Alaska from Georgia two years ago. She had plans to go into the military, switched to law enforcement, and applied for an opening in dispatch at the police department.
“It clicked,” she said. “It’s all about being at both ends of the emergency, doing the call research, and being computer savvy. Even though we stay extremely busy, I’m able to get done what’s needed. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”