I was not the chaplain on call that cool night in March of 1994. But as chaplain commander that particular year, I was on call in the event of a major event that required more than one person to respond. When my pager went off at 1:30 in the morning, I knew it was not good news.
Back in the pre-cell phone days, we had to call our dispatcher in order to receive details about the needs of the moment. That morning my dispatcher told me a 10 year old girl had perished in a house fire. The on call chaplain was with the family, but they wanted someone to be with the firefighters and police officers that had responded to a fully involved fire shortly after midnight.
I went back to the fire station and drank coffee with the firefighters until the shift changed. It was an opportunity to do ministry of presence. When I finished there, I felt led to go check on my dispatchers. I knew all of them well. They knew the names of my two little boys, who were ages 5 and 2 at the time. We had been through a lot together. When I arrived at the communications center, I was reminded of some important facts.
The dispatchers that take our 911 calls and in turn make sure that all necessary first responders get to where they are supposed to go are the first ones to hear about a tragedy unfolding. In this case, frantic neighbors called 911 because a small wooden frame house was engulfed in flames. Dispatch had firefighters on scene in less than 5 minutes that night. That was my first reminder.
It is a job that requires multi-tasking. In the case of that fire, they had to dispatch fire units from two stations, an ambulance, and police officers to block off the street and provide security. They have to calm to crisis stricken people, so they can secure basic information. (No easy task) During this particular call a medical examiner and a chaplain had to be paged…That was my second reminder.
There is no time to become emotional. There is no time to process what is going on. And when the call is over, they have no clue what really happened. They were behind a computer screen for the duration of the event. When I arrived at the communications center that morning, all of the dispatchers were yearning for information about the fire. How was the family doing? How were the first responders coping? I learned something very valuable that morning. Dispatchers are the first to hear the bad news and the last ones to find out what the final outcome of an incident. A strange place to be in emergency services in my estimation…That was the third one…
Dispatchers really care about those they serve. I told them I was waiting for the office at an elementary school to open, so I could notify the victim’s teacher that she had died in the fire. One of the dispatchers that had worked all night volunteered to go with me to talk to the teacher. She thought I could use the help. When we arrived, we found a teacher that was 7 or 8 months pregnant. I was so thankful to have another person with me to help that morning. I was grateful that the dispatcher was willing to expand on her role as a multi-tasking person. And I was equally thankful that for perhaps the first time in her career she was able to serve someone away from the computer screen. My fourth and final reminder..
This is Police Dispatcher Appreciation Week. I am writing in memory of Judy Graf, who always took care of her “boys” on the streets. She was a veteran dispatcher. I really miss her and think of her often. And I am also writing in honor of those that I am privileged to serve with today. You are a blessing to many. Thank you for caring about me. That is a truth I don’t need to be reminded of.