July 5, 1994 That was the first day I walked into the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office building as an employee. Twenty one years ago today, I thought “this will be a breeze!”. Little did I know…
The first week is an “orientation” period, where you go on ride-alongs, see different parts of the department, and generally try to see the entire operation. I think the ball was a bit dropped in my case, based on what others told me later, when it came to seeing the full spread of departments and operations. I toured the jail, and spent half a day organizing warrants by number in records, went on a ride-along with a deputy serving (or trying to serve) civil paperwork, and had a tour of the administration offices in the Main Jail building. I didn’t get to see any of the outlying facilities, like the Bob Wiley Detention Facility, the Coroner’s office, or any of the sub-stations. I’ve seen a few since, but still not BWDF (AKA Big White Duck Farm, the Bob Wiley Detention Facility), the Coroner’s, or Juvenile Hall (which I suppose isn’t technically associated with the Sheriff’s Office).
After that, I reported to dispatch, for training. Three months of “sink or swim”, where you were hands-on with a trainer doing their regular dispatch job while trying to show you how to be a dispatcher. Intense doesn’t begin to capture the feeling of those three months. To show you just how the stress can affect you, I *lost* 15 pounds during my training! And that was at a time when I was 25 pounds lighter than I am now! There were three points in my training, where, if I’d had a job available to go to, I would have walked out. I had to stick it out, however, because I had (I believed) no other options. I’m glad now I stayed, but it was not a good time for me.
I had thought, when I was first sitting down to training, that the radio portion of the job would be a cake walk. I didn’t suffer from “mic-fright” (a common issue with new dispatchers), and I knew most of the radio codes, and was fairly familiar with, at the least, the central and eastern portions of the county. I was terrified of the 9-1-1 lines, however. I did not know how I would react to an emergency caller, and was not sure I could handle the situations that might come across the phone lines.
It turns out I had it exactly backwards.
The 9-1-1 phone calls were a breeze, after a little experience. The radio kicked my ass for a year or more. Especially channel 2, the one that covered the area I was most familiar with! It was a challenge to keep up with the radio traffic, get the information into the computer, and keep everything straight… er, organized, in my head.
They say it takes two years to become comfortable as a 9-1-1 dispatcher, and I believe that. For those first two years, I went to work in a state of dread, wondering “what will go wrong today?” Eventually, everything smoothed out, and at some point I realized I was in a job that I loved. I’ve told people in the past that dispatching is the perfect fit for me: “I get to help people, play on the radio and computer, tell cops where to go and how to get there (and they have to go there!), and they pay me for it!” Really… what could be better? (well, astronaut, but NASA has shown a complete lack of interest in me)
In 2002, the Sheriff’s Office celebrated 150 years of operations, with a commemorative badge. It’s a replica of the style first used by the sheriff’s office, and was available for deputies to wear in that year only as part of their uniform. Other employees were allowed to purchase one, and here’s the one I put in a shadow box and have on my wall at home.
In 2005 I was honored with our department’s Dispatcher of the Year award.
Over the years, I’ve handled a myriad of calls and radio traffic. I’ve had officer involved shootings occur while I’ve been on the radio. A deputy (Kevin Elium) died and a chaplain riding with him was seriously injured in a traffic accident during a radio shift. Lost children or elderly adults, medical emergencies, and suicides. One of my most memorable calls recently was to be on the phone with someone while they were involved in a shoot-out!
The one that may be the most memorable, however, took a decade to complete. About ten years ago I took a 9-1-1 call at just before 5am, where a 17 year old male called and said he found his father dead, shot to death in the bedroom. At the time I took the call, I thought it would end up being a prank, as the situation was just too bizarre. No panic, no screaming, none of the usual “tells” were present that would indicate this was a genuine situation. Well, it turns out it was exactly how the caller described, someone had come into the house during the night and killed the father. That was strange enough, but the “rest of the story” is a bit weird for me, too. Recently, a man was arrested on the east coast, and in the investigation of that crime, it became known, by his own confession, that he had murdered about a dozen people in California over the years, as part of a criminal organization. It turns out my 9-1-1 call was about one of his victims. We usually don’t find out what happens when we take 9-1-1 calls, more than our sending help. That’s part of the job, and it’s seldom that we get “closure”, so to speak. This one “closed” with a strange thud.
Today is 21 years. Here’s a recent picture, with a bit of a twist:
I don’t know how many more years I’ll do this, but for now it’s what I do. I work with some fantastic people (and a few less-than-fantastic, but what can you do?), and I love helping people. The stress these days comes not from emergency callers who don’t know where they are or what’s happening, or from deputies and officers going nuts on the radio channels, but instead from the memos that come down from “on high”, and things that needed to be changed a month ago but still haven’t been, and other various operational issues. I think, after 21 years, I’m beginning to understand what drove my dad to leave the Air Force after just 8 years. He told me he couldn’t stand the bureaucracy. Maybe I’m just more tolerant than he was. Or maybe he was smarter!
At any rate, here I am, 21 years later. Retirement is on my horizon, but still many years off. For now, I continue with “9-1-1, Emergency”. But please, know where you are!