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911 call taker: 'You can't have a bad day. If you do, people die'

Posted September 24, 2015

Jeff Mitchell is a call taker at the Raleigh-Wake 911 center.
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— Sometimes when he drives home from work, his 12-hour shift in the rearview mirror, Jeff Mitchell sits in silence – no radio, no phone calls, nothing. When you've listened to a dying man take his last breath or a parent screaming as a child convulses on the floor, you don't want to hear any more sounds.

In his years as a 911 call taker in Alaska and now at the Raleigh-Wake Emergency Communications Center, Mitchell has heard people at their worst and most vulnerable. He has been cursed at, cried to and hung up on. But he has also helped deliver babies, saved people with CPR and comforted a lonely, old lady.

"You never know when that phone rings what's going to be on the other side," Mitchell said. "This is one of the jobs where you have to be 100 percent all the time. You can't have a bad day, because if you do, people die."

Mitchell takes about 250 to 300 calls a day inside the dimly lit basement of the Raleigh Municipal Building in downtown, where the 911 center is housed for now. The center is moving to a new public safety facility near Capital Boulevard in March.

With his headset on, Mitchell leans back in his chair and readies for the next call. Seven monitors glow in front of him.

"Nine-one-one, what's the address of your emergency?" he asks the caller. He doesn't actually say the words. Mitchell and other 911 workers pre-record the message to save them from having to repeat that line hundreds of times a day.

Most people never get to see this side of the 911 center. Behind the locked doors, the workers say, it's nothing like you see on TV.

Raleigh-Wake Emergency Communications Center

'Jesus! He's trying to kill us!'

Of the hundreds of people who apply to work in the Raleigh-Wake 911 center each year, very few ever make it to the center's floor. Last summer, 389 people applied. Six graduated.

Before a candidate is even brought in for an interview, they are put through a series of tests to assess their multitasking abilities and typing skills. Later, they go through a background check and psychological test.

The job can take a toll psychologically. Emergency center trainees are immersed in that world quickly. As part of their training, they listen to recordings of actual 911 calls and hear the types of real, life-saving instructions they will be expected to provide.

They hear the frantic screams of a mother whose 10-month-old baby is not breathing, his eyes rolled back in his head, after she left him in the tub and "just ran downstairs for a minute."

They hear a father yelling "Jesus! He's trying to kill us!" and his daughter screaming in the background as a driver rams their vehicle over and over before the line goes dead.

They hear the frenzied voice of a Good Samaritan trying to help a little girl hit by a vehicle at a bus stop, lying on the road, choking on her own blood.

They hear the trembling cries of a woman moments after she was robbed at gunpoint, trying desperately to describe the masked man who put a gun to her head and drove off in her truck.

They also hear the mundane, repetitive calls – the people who accidentally dial 911 instead of the 919 area code, the people who set off their home alarm and can't remember the passcode to shut it off, the children who dial 911 on old phones that their parents didn't realize could make emergency calls.

Raleigh-Wake 911 center telecommunicator Latisha Walter

'I guess I like chaos'

Telecommunicator Latisha Walter says she has taken so many accidental 911 pocket dial calls that she has gotten good at listening to the background noise and guessing where the person is.

"This sounds like somebody at school," she said during a recent call. "It sounds like they're in gym class."

After checking her maps to see an approximate location of where the call had been traced, she had an answer. "I think this is Moore Square Middle School," she said, pointing to the map.

Walter joined the Raleigh-Wake 911 center three years ago after working at a women's prison. The two jobs have a lot in common, she says, including talking on the radio and dealing with uncooperative people.

"I guess I like chaos. I like to stay busy," she said. "You have to have a calm, level head. If you're looking for something different every day, this is the place."

For the work they do, 911 center employees make about $34,000 to $55,000 a year and are required to work 12-hour shifts, 14 days a month, some of which are overnight shifts. They get one full week off every month.

Retaining employees is always a problem, says 911 center Director Dominick Nutter, who was hired to lead the center this past April.

"It's just because the nature of this job and the stress," Nutter said. "It's one thing for people to see it on TV. It's different when they're actually sitting on the seat, and they're the one responsible."

Sitting, and staying, in that seat is a major responsibility of the job. Call takers and dispatchers don't always have the freedom to roam as they please.

"If someone on the radio position has to go to the bathroom, well, they have to call someone to cover for them," Nutter said. "You've got the first responders that you're responsible for on the radio. They're depending on you."

Raleigh-Wake 911 Center Director Dominick Nutter

'I heard him take his last breath'

Like many 911 workers, Jeff Mitchell says he has become desensitized to the death, destruction and sadness he hears each day. He has to, or it will overwhelm him. Some days are tougher than others, he admits, and there are times he has left work feeling "mentally destroyed."

Mitchell remembers the very first 911 call he ever took while working at a 911 center in Alaska. The man on the phone was having a heart attack, but he was home alone, secluded in the wilderness. His street sign – hand carved out of wood – didn't exist in the 911 center's database.

"The first words out of his mouth were, 'You're not to going find me,'" Mitchell recalled. By the time the ambulance found him, it was too late.

"I heard him take his last breath on the phone," Mitchell said. "That was my introduction to 911. If that didn't make me quit right there, then I wasn't going to quit."

Since then, Mitchell has saved several people with CPR, including one person last year, and helped deliver five babies – two in Alaska and three in North Carolina. His most recent delivery was in June when a man called 911 as his wife gave birth on their living room floor.

"I walked the father all the way through it, and he was fantastic," Mitchell said. "It was a fun call to be a part of."

The baby was a girl. Mitchell wears a stork pin for each of the children he has helped deliver and says he would love to meet them someday. But he knows that closure is something most 911 workers will never get.

"I'm always curious," Mitchell said. "What did they name them?"


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  • John Franks Sep 25, 2015
    user avatar

    View quoted thread

    @Nicolle Lenney Great question. The schedule is no doubt one of the reasons for the high turnover rate in the 9-1-1 industry. Working nights, weekends, and holidays, is no fun, not to mention missing anniversaries, birthdays, piano recitals, etc.

    Most organizations that operate on a 24/7 basis usually have a schedule of 12 or 24 hours. Less common are 8 and 10 hour schedules. Some agencies like fire and EMS work 24 hour schedules and allow their employees to sleep at night in between calls. Obviously that's not functional for a 9-1-1 center.

    The 8 hour schedule doesn't seem allow enough down time for employees. Working 5 days in a row in a high volume 9-1-1 center is exhausting. Plus if you rotate the schedule it increases the stress even more.

    We have found that the 12 hour schedule works best. But we continually tweak the schedule to improve both the quality of life for employee and the level of service to the callers.

  • John Franks Sep 25, 2015
    user avatar

    View quoted thread

    20 days x 8 hours = 160 hours/month
    14 days x 11 hours = 154 hours/month

    While the article mentions that the schedule has a week off built into it, what it does not mention is that the schedule also includes working 6 out of 7 days (that's 3 days & 3 nights in 1 week).

    Also, many of the telecommunicators work overtime shifts (sometimes mandatory overtime shifts) during their "week off" to meet minimum staffing.

    If you're still interested in having off 1 week every month, the Center is hiring now.


  • Nicolle Leney Sep 25, 2015
    user avatar

    Hopefully someone who works in 911 can shed some light on my question. Why do they schedule the workers this way??? I would think in such a high stress job, it would be better to do the traditional 8 hours. Also, I know from working at McDonalds during the summer in college that this type of schedule (lack of consistency in night vs morning shifts, overnights, etc) really messes with someone's sleep schedule. I'm sure it's also fun for childcare scheduling. Maybe there's a reason for doing it this way, but as an outsider, I just see it as adding unnecessary difficulties to an already extremely stressful job.

  • Xena Lucia Sep 24, 2015
    user avatar

    P.S. 14 days per month at 12 hours per day = 168 hours per 4 weeks. If you work a 40 hour work week, in 4 weeks you have only worked 160 hours. So, technically, there's not a "week off" given to 911 employees - they work more hours in a 4 week span than does someone with a regular 9-5.

  • Xena Lucia Sep 24, 2015
    user avatar

    Having worked as a 911 operator many years ago, the schedule is brutal - 12 hour rotating shifts for 3 out of 4 weeks of the month. (Four 12 hr nights-off 3, three 12 hr days-off 1, three 12 hr nights-off 3, four 12 hr days-off 7.) Sure, you get that 1 week off per month, but half the time you are called in for overtime to help cover for people who are out sick, etc, and you never get to "catch up" on rest. As for call volume....one fender bender on the beltline at rush hour could provoke 50 calls or more from passersby....easy to get to close to a million calls per year. Hats off to 911 call center agents everywhere who can manage to stay in it for more than a couple of years.

  • Clinton Tingen Sep 24, 2015
    user avatar

    Not trying to stir the pot or anything but did anyone else notice that almost everyone in Wake county calls 911 once a year? Also can't complain about the schedule, working 14 days a month doesn't equal 1 full week off

  • Laura Walasin Sep 24, 2015
    user avatar

    Wow! What a story!!! I've had to use the 911 service. Thank you so much for what you do.

  • Sonja Yagel Sep 24, 2015
    user avatar

    May God bless each and every dispatcher who assists to help anyone in trouble. They are special people.