911 call taker: 'You can't have a bad day. If you do, people die'
Posted September 24, 2015
Raleigh, N.C. — 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.
'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.
'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."
'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?"