Art Braunschweiger

Art Braunschweiger

Story Vault

As I write this it’s Sept. 11. I’ve just driven home from my shift at the county 9-1-1 center. My trip takes me through several small towns typical of any in the northeast U.S. Tonight, two of those towns are holding 9/11 memorial services as I pass through. Few municipalities in our area were untouched by the events of that horrific day, and 13 years ago tonight a lot of husbands, wives, friends, and neighbors never came home. No doubt many in attendance tonight are there even though they didn’t experience a loss personally.

I wasn’t working dispatch on Sept. 11, 2001; I was on vacation on the Jersey shore. My lasting memory is that of a silent sky, empty of planes.

I still can’t imagine what it was like to take calls from people who said they were going to jump rather than endure the growing terror of heat and smoke consuming their world. I do know that as emergency dispatchers, our purpose is to make a meaningful difference in the worst moment of someone’s life. Being the voice on the phone that’s calm and in control can mean the world to someone in crisis.

Years ago, I took a call from a woman who was concerned she might be having an allergic reaction to something she ate. After I went through the protocol, I stayed on the line until responders arrived. I didn’t think anything more about it until weeks later when my manager gave me a handwritten note from my caller. She thanked me for helping her remain calm, and went on to say: “What you offer in the midst of the fear and uncertainty of emergency situations are nothing short of a blessing.”

She was referring to all of us, everywhere.

As emergency dispatchers, we have only a few minutes to impact someone’s life. We’ve got a job to do, but we can’t forget that someone in crisis is at the center of what we do regardless of how calm he or she might seem. A single statement of reassurance can make such a difference at the right moment that you couldn’t possibly put a price on it.

A long time ago my partner took a call from a frantic mom whose baby was having a first-time seizure. At one point, my partner said: “Listen—I know it’s scary. Trust me, I know it’s scary. But you have to calm down so you can help your baby, OK?” Those words were the emotional lifeline the caller needed at that moment.

Occasionally I hear things creep into an emergency dispatcher’s voice triggered by something the caller said. I cringe when the tone of a dispatcher’s voice suggests that the caller is behaving inappropriately by being excited or angry. The caller is reacting that way because of the stress from going through the situation. For us to react to their stress in a negative manner is simply not acceptable.

Most of us learned the word “empathy” in basic 9-1-1 training. Empathy is the ability to sense the other person’s emotions and let the person know it’s OK. It’s easy to forget that, especially when a caller interrupts with “just send the ambulance!” (I wish I had a Stressful Situation Detector on my 9-1-1 screen that would flash red and display the message “IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU—IT’S ABOUT WHAT’S HAPPENING TO THEM.”)

Making a difference to someone in crisis isn’t about you or what kind of person you are. It’s about letting callers know that at that moment, you’re there for them. It costs nothing, it means everything, and it shows that we’re true professionals in crisis management.

Have you made a difference to someone today?