A 911 dispatcher tells all

'Tell Me Exactly What Happened' by Caroline Burau
'Tell Me Exactly What Happened' by Caroline Burau
Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society Press

911 dispatcher: "Tell me exactly what happened."
Caller: "This guy just started having a seizure. My buddy is trying to put a fork in his mouth so he doesn't swallow his tongue."
911: "Tell him to stop that, right now. Don't put anything in his mouth."
Caller: "But I think I saw in a movie once..."
911: "You can't swallow your tongue. No. Nothing in the mouth. Especially a fork."
Caller: "What about just his hand?"
911: "Not if he wants to keep his hand. I don't know what movie that's in, but goodness, no."

– From "Tell Me Exactly What Happened" by Caroline Burau

Life as a 911 operator has its moments: scary moments, tragic moments, boring moments — and even hilarious moments.

Caroline Burau has worked as an emergency dispatcher for several departments, from a single-person call center to a service that dispatched air ambulances. She writes about life on the other end of the line in "Tell Me Exactly What Happened: Dispatches from 911," and she joined MPR News host Tom Weber to talk about it.

Burau got started in the field after working as a reporter, where she found herself peppering police officers with questions about what the dispatcher job was like. Eventually, one of the officers just said: "We're hiring. Why don't you just go take the test?"

That test measures your ability to prioritize and multi-task — and Burau passed.

One thing most people don't understand is that 911 dispatchers act as first responders, Burau said. Often that term is reserved for the first police officer or paramedic on the scene — but Burau explained how the phone response can be critical too.

"The 911 dispatcher is the first responder," she said. "Often times that means giving instructions and helping with the Heimlich maneuver — a lot of different things. A dispatcher might bristle if you refer to someone else as the first responder: 'No, I'm the first one there.'"

For the full interview with Caroline Burau on her work as a 911 dispatcher, use the audio player above.

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