The Nightmare Before Christmas

I killed him. That was not my intention, but it surely was the result of my actions.

It was another Christmas Eve. God, I hate the holidays. You’d think after nine years I’d be used to it all, but I’m not. Maybe I never will be. When you send your friends into the face of danger on a regular basis the stress begins to take its toll. Maybe last night was the final straw. I said that last year, though, didn’t I?

I am working the graveyard shift. Those who have not worked the 11 to 7 shift have no idea what it can do to your mind and body. The body wants rest, and is constantly fighting with the mind, who struggles to stay awake. It must stay awake.

When I work this god awful shift I am perpetually tired. Toss in a little stress from a myriad of sources that keep me awake during the day when I should be sleeping, and…. Well, I think you might get the picture. A sleepless day, and a caffeine filled night. Oh, you can’t forget about the family—the kids, the husband, the friends who think that I am just “napping” at one in the afternoon. You sure can’t forget about them. While I’m awake, they’re sleeping. While I should be sleeping, they’re awake, enjoying a perfectly good day, all the while wondering why I shouldn’t be there with them.

I could go on and on, but that’s not what this is all about. Let me start over, and you’ll soon enough get the idea why I must write this all down.

Like I said earlier, it was Christmas Eve. I’m a law enforcement dispatcher working for a medium sized agency, in a rundown town in a cash strapped state. We’re overworked, underpaid, understaffed, and, definitely, under appreciated. Without me, and many thousands more like me around the world, help would not arrive when and where it’s needed.

Last night was not your typical Friday night. No, not this one. It was the night of the full moon, and the start to a holiday weekend to boot. Not only did we have to contend with the loonies who come out at this time of the lunar cycle, but it was the start to the weekend—a holiday weekend. Now go ahead and toss in the increased level of family fights around the holidays, and the uptick in suicides that always take place this time of year, and you’ve got yourself one big stewing pot of trouble. I sure wish I had stayed home last night, but I’m damned glad I was there—there for my other family. They needed me.

Oh, the night started out okay. I got the kids bathed and into bed, made an apple pie and a pumpkin pie for our family dinner today, this special day, finished decorating, helped my husband arrange the gifts under the tree, then kissed him goodbye and drove silently to work. I like a little peace and quiet to settle my mind before being bombarded with stress and the adrenaline rush that hits me every time I walk into dispatch to begin my shift.

Then, I stepped into that room of ringing phones, constant chatter, and continuous radio traffic from I don’t know how many sources. Then there were the people, not enough of them. Like I said, I’ve been doing this for nine years. I was senior on the shift last night—employment longevity is not one of the strong suits of my profession. I looked around at my co-workers. Half of us were arriving, and half leaving. Well, not exactly half. One of our rookies was working the cover shift, one when we should have had three. Yes, we were understaffed again—two call-takers and one radio position down. To top it all off I was working the main law enforcement radio channel.

I work at a combined dispatch center. We answer all the 911 calls in the city, and dispatch law enforcement, fire department, and ambulance. We do emergency medical dispatching as well, giving pre-arrival instructions to the callers who have medical emergencies. That’s why we need the phone takers. When you’re trying to give CPR instructions over the phone you don’t need the distraction of the radio. But, we didn’t have that luxury last night. There’s been way too many of those kinds of shifts—shorthanded, and still expected to get the job done, and we do, too.

When I walked in I surveyed the chaos around me. People were “plugging in” and sitting down, while others were gathering up their belongings and making their way to the door. Glancing at the monitor hanging on the wall at the end of the room, I saw we had about a dozen calls for service holding, the fire department was working a two alarm structure fire, all the ambulances in the city were tied up, and it looked like another night of a skeleton crew on the street, 13 cops for 21 beats.

There wasn’t a lot to my briefing. Cathy quickly said, “Taylor and Jensen are tied up on a deuce.” There goes my K9 unit. He’s always stopping a drunk driver at the most inconvenient times. “The sergeant says to make sure all the guys get C7.” I guess we don’t count. I can’t tell you the last time I got a lunch break. “Angie called in sick.” Damn. Means one of us is going to have to work overtime in the morning. Merry Fucking Christmas. “Read that ADW the detectives are out on. You’ll get a kick out of how stupid some people can be. Hope your night is better than ours was.” And, she was gone.

I check my status board. Eleven incidents holding. Only one of any real significance, a shots fired call. The patrolmen on the street are in motion. The swing shift guys are logging off as fast as they can, and the graveyard crew are, as usual, dragging their feet coming out of briefing. My two cover units, Taylor and Jensen, are useless to me. With no radio traffic I make my first mistake of the night.

I have to do my part to stop all that ringing. Dispatchers working the main radio channels are not supposed to answer 911 lines, but if we didn’t, then who? Our 911 system displays the address of where the caller is, but it is not infallible. We always ask. “911. Where is your emergency?”

“Please, make him stop.” The little girl is sobbing uncontrollably.

“Honey, what’s the matter?”

“Please make my dad stop hitting my mom. He’s hurting her. Daaaad, stop it.” She’s screaming now. No wonder so many of us dispatchers are hard of hearing.

No cops available, and a family fight. That’s just lovely. I turn to my partner, Hannah, who is working the backup channel and ask her to call briefing, and tell those idiots in there that someone is needed on the street—now.

“Just calm down. What is your name?” I have to get the child’s attention. Anything to get her focused on me and not the mayhem taking place around her.

“Rebecca.”

“How old are you, Rebecca?”

“Eight. Please. Make him stop. Please make my dad stop hitting my mom.” This is going to be a Christmas this young lady will remember forever. The call originated from a part of town where these kinds of situations take place regularly, so this is probably not her first rodeo, if you get my meaning.

“Rebecca, we’re going to get some help there for you. I just need you to answer a few questions for me, okay?” They sure are taking their sweet-assed time tonight. Where’s a cop when you need one?

“Okay.”

“Great. Where’s your daddy now?” The yelling and all the screaming that had been in the background has stopped. It is eerily quiet, the only sound coming from the little girl on the other end of the line, her sobs and sniffles. Oh, and a couple of younger children crying. They sound close. My guess is that Rebecca is the oldest and is acting as protector to a younger brother and/or sister.

“He’s sitting in his chair watching tv.”

“Where’s your mom?”

“She’s in her bedroom, I think.”

“Dispatch, seven lincoln twenty. En route to the jail with one.” That would be Jensen. He’s transporting for Taylor, our K9 unit. I sure wish I had the luxury of concentrating on just one aspect of my job at a time, but my guys on the street, just like this little girl, need me. Oh, the life of a dispatcher.

“Copy seven lincoln twenty.” I’ve got a little girly sobbing in my ear,  and a cop on the radio. My fingers are flying across the keyboard, furiously updating his status, all the while trying to get the appropriate information entered into the computer so that the responding officers to Rebecca’s home will have what they need, and there will be a record of what went on, if it ever comes to that.

“Rebecca, what is your address?” I have to get confirmation that the location displayed on my screen is correct.

“191 Elm.” Got it.

“Dispatch, seven mary three ten eight.” About damned time someone gets out there. Just the wrong someone, is all.

“Copy, seven mary three.” Fingers, do your job. I update his status, then quickly enter more information into the incident screen.

“Dispatch, seven lincoln ninety four en route to the jail.” Taylor is going to be tied up with booking and paperwork. That’s going to keep him off the street for rest of his shift. Slacker.

“Rebecca, does your daddy have any guns or knives?” A prime concern for every dispatcher is keeping their officers safe. Asking about weapons is one of the first things we do. I’ve always prided myself in the fact that all my guys go home at the end of their shift.

“He’s got a gun in the bedroom.”

“Does he have a gun or knife with him right now?”

“No.” That’s one positive.

“Dispatch, seven mary six ten eight.” You’re going to work tonight, buster.

“Copy seven mary six. Clear to copy family fight?”

“Go ahead.” He’s sounds grumpy already. I wonder what his problem is.

“191 Elm, cross of Walnut. Male subject in the living room, female in the bedroom. I’m attempting to obtain further from a juvenile caller. Seven mary three assist.”

“Seven mary six en route.”

“Seven mary eight ten eight. I’ll take that assist. ”

“Copy seven mary eight ten eight, en route with seven mary six to a family fight on Elm.”

Back to the phone. “Rebecca. There are two policemen on their way to your house. Is your dad still sitting in his chair?”

“Yes.”

“Is your mom still in the bedroom?”

Kabooooom. What the hell?  My left ear is ringing from the loud explosion that just came across the phone line. Rebecca and the other kids are screaming louder than I could have imagined, and she’s dropped the phone.

I push the alert button three quick times in succession, each depression sending out a high pitched noise over the radio. It’s meant to alert officers to something very important that they are about to hear. “Units responding to Elm. Shots fired, and I’ve lost contact with the juvenile caller.”

“Seven mary six copies. En route code.” People get out of the way. He’s coming through with lights and siren. And that boy can drive.

“Seven mary eight copies. En route code.”

“Seven mary four ten eight and en route code to the call on Elm.”

“Copy seven mary four.”

“Seven mary three en route to the call on Elm.”

“Copy seven mary three.” Everybody wants to go to a fight with guns, especially if they can drive real fast and use their sirens. Shots fired, naked women, and code three responses. Those guys are so predictable.

I’m updating my status board as quickly as I can. Hannah is updating it as well. What units didn’t go in service on my channel did so on hers.

“Rebecca? Hello?” The screaming is intense, but still there is no one on the other end of the line. With all the commotion from inside that house bombarding my hearing in my left ear, and the radio traffic, and background noises from other dispatchers, call takers, and ringing phones assaulting my right, it’s no wonder I have voices rattling around inside my head most of my waking hours, and all of my sleeping ones. I figured out a long time ago that they’re just echoes that haven’t caught up with themselves, yet.

Updates to the information I had entered about the family fight on Elm begin coming in from other dispatchers. The sound of the gunshot had prompted neighbors to act. It’s okay if a man is beating his wife, but when there’s a gun involved I guess it’s time to act. Sometimes humanity rubs me the wrong way.

“Units responding to Elm. We’ve got several calls about the gunshot.”

“Seven mary six copies. Do you still have the caller on the line?”

“Seven mary six, that’s negative. I’ve got an open line with screaming and crying in the background, but no contact.”

“Seven mary six copies. I’m still about two out.” Damn. Two minutes is a lifetime in a situation like this, and I’ve got to keep listening to what’s going on in that house every second of every minute until officers arrive.

And, then there’s the radio. “Dispatch, seven mary two traffic.” What idiot goes and makes a car stop at a time like this? This better be worth it, buster.

“Seven mary two, go ahead.”

“Six paul zebra adam nine nine two. Fourteenth and G.” He can’t even get to his beat, can he? I should have dispatched him on one of those incidents I’ve got on hold when I had the chance.

“Fourteenth and G. Copy.”

“Seven mary one is with him.”

“Copy seven mary one.” I’m going to have to step up my game, otherwise those cops will be all over the place, doing what they want, when they want. I’ve got things for them to do.

“Rebecca? Hello? Rebecca, can you hear me?” Still all that screaming.

I’ve got to get some of these incidents dispatched. “Seven mary ten, clear to copy a shots fired call.” I guess some people are just gearing up for New Years.

“Seven mary ten, go ahead.”

“Sound of shots fired in the area of Newbury Park. Numerous callers, the majority stating that it sounded like the shots are coming from the area of the baseball diamond. Seven mary fourteen, assist.”

“Seven mary ten copy.”

“Seven mary fourteen copy.”

“Rebecca? Hello. Rebecca?” The screams have subsided, but there’s still the crying.

I wonder where seven mary twelve is. When I looked at my beat schedule before I sat down I saw that the rookie, Bell, is working that beat. He’s probably in the sergeant’s office getting his ass chewed again. If he keeps this up the only thing he’s going to have left is a hole. And, as dense as he is he’ll probably just drop through that and hang himself.

“Dispatch, seven mary six on scene. Give me emergency traffic on this channel.” I hit the alert button and announce his request.

“Seven mary eight on scene.”

“Seven mary three and four right behind him.”

“Copy units on Elm on scene. Sergeant en route from the station.”

I look at my partner. Hannah is doing a fine job fielding the phone calls into dispatch, and working her radio.

I can hear through the phone the officers on scene announcing their presence. Hannah informs me that seven mary two has a drunk driver in custody. That’s just great. One less cop on the street. That’s all I need. At least he’s taking a menace off the streets.

Three additional calls since I sat down: ambulance crew requesting police for an unruly family member, another family fight, and a barking dog call. That dog’s going to lose his voice before I get someone out there.

“Hello. Dispatch? This is Harrison.” A familiar voice on the phone. It’s about time. “We’re code four. Get a supervisor over here. We’ll need detectives and child protective services. Put the coroner on standby. We’ll be needing her out here, too. Just not right now.” God, I hate the holidays.

“Got it. Sergeant is on his way. I’ll alert the LT and see who he wants to call out. How bad is it?”

“It’s bad. I’ll call you later.” He hangs up the phone without saying goodbye.

I push the alert button three times in quick succession and announce that the radio channel is now free for normal radio traffic. I ask Hannah to track down the lieutenant and advise him of the situation.

“Seven S one, dispatch.” I’ve got to keep the sergeant updated.

“Go ahead dispatch.”

“Seven S one since they’re code four on Elm can we see about freeing someone up? I’ve got fourteen calls holding, two of which are priority.”

“Copy. I’ll see what I can do about getting you a couple of units when I get there.” Yeah, right. I won’t hold my breath.

“Seven mary twelve clear to copy.”

“Go ahead.”

“Seven mary twelve family fight at 1941 Hanson cross of Buck. I’ll have a backup for you just as soon as someone comes ten eight.”

“Copy. En route.”

“Dispatch, seven mary one will take that assist.” That’s going to put him way out of his beat, but at this point I don’t care. I don’t have anyone else.

“Dispatch, seven mary ten in the area.”

“Copy seven mary ten.”

I’ve been updating my status monitor as fast as I can, but I study it intently to make sure I have everyone where they should be. You never want to lose track of a cop, since he might need help at any minute. It looks okay. I glance at the clock. Damn. I haven’t even been here an hour yet. I pick up my forgotten cup of coffee. It’s cold. What else is new?

I’ve been too busy to keep track of what Hannah has been doing. She’s only been on her own for six months, but she’s good. If she can figure out how to handle the stress, and juggle a personal life, she’ll do okay.

I take a moment to take a deep breath and try to relax. Another call appears on my screen out of nowhere. I read it, and hold it. That one won’t get dispatched for awhile—a long while.

“Eleven ninety-nine. Eleven ninety-nine. I’m being shot at.” Our code for officer needs assistance. Williams. Oh, no.

I push the alert button three quick times in succession and announce, “All units eleven ninety-nine Newbury Park. Officer needs assistance. Shots fired. Eleven ninety-nine Newbury Park. This channel is for emergency traffic only.” All hell breaks loose at this point. This is only my second 1199 since I became a dispatcher. The last time, Shelly got his ass kicked by a tweaker. This time is going to be oh so much worse. I can feel it way down deep in my gut.

Every unit I have available is screaming code three to Newbury Park. Our phones are ringing off the hook. Hannah is telling me that other agencies have officers en route, too: the county mounties, highway patrol, three neighboring cities, and some fish and wildlife unit, I think that’s what she said.

“Dispatch, seven mary fourteen is in the area. Where is he?”

“Seven mary ten advise your location.” Nothing. Oh, this is bad.

“Seven mary fourteen try the area around the baseball diamond. That’s the area where the callers were saying the shots were coming from.” Newbury park is a large park in the northern part of our city. The southwest corner of the park is where four baseball/softball diamonds are located. There is a duck pond in the eastern part of the park. It’s a popular place for the homeless, the addicts, and the soon to be homeless addicts.

“I’ve got him. Get an ambulance over to field three. Now.”

“Ambulance is en route. Their ETA is ten to fifteen. Fire department enroute. Seven mary fourteen, can you advise responsible information for incoming units?”

“Negative. Isn’t there a closer ambulance? He’s not going to make it.”

At this point the responding units are using their MDT’s, the computers in their cars, and marking themselves on scene. The radio channel is going to be kept free for any important information. The officers are adept at using their onboard computers, but policy is that they announce their status on the radio—except in situations like this. In some ways it makes my job harder, but that’s what I get paid for, taking care of my guys.

“Dispatch, seven adam one.”

“Go ahead seven adam one.” The lieutenant doesn’t follow protocol. He was out there, and we had no idea he had even left the station. No wonder Hannah couldn’t find him.

“Get hold of Sergeant McEntire and tell him what we have. He’ll need to activate the Crimes Against Persons team.” Oh, great. Ed McEntire is a real ass when you wake him up. I suppose Hannah’s got to learn sometime. “We’ve got an unknown shooter out here. Set up a perimeter ten blocks out in all directions.” Where am I going to get that kind of manpower on a night like tonight? It’s a frigging holiday. “Tell McEntire that one of his guys will have to meet the ambulance at the hospital for a dying declaration.”

I’m stunned. It’s like I’ve just been slapped.

“Copy seven adam one.”

What the hell did he just say? I look over at Hannah, and she looks mortified, eyes wide, brimming with tears. This just might end her career. The whole room seems to have gone quiet, and time stands still. We’ve got things to do. And, do quickly.

“Suck it up, Hannah. We’ve got a job to do. Think about it later.” I just don’t know when later is going to be.

I begin directing incoming units to locations surrounding the park, while coordinating with four other dispatch centers on the phone, trying to put their guys in good spots, locations in a city they know very little about.

Hannah got hold of McEntire. She is still crying, but at least she is functional. Did I ever tell you I hate this job? I hate it to the core of my very being. But, I can’t do anything else. I won’t let myself.

I’m currently in my car, parked in the driveway of my home. I don’t remember driving home, but I’m sure I did. I’m here, aren’t I?

After Williams got shot the rest of the night went by in a blur. He was DOA at the hospital. They were still looking for his killer when I left the dispatch center. The LT had called in more cops to work the streets, handle some of the holding incidents, and assist the detectives in the investigation. We dispatchers were not as lucky. We remained understaffed throughout the shift. Hannah was the unlucky dispatcher who got to stay around for another four hours. It was her turn. It really sucks that she will not be there for her daughter’s first Christmas morning.

In the past, there had been discussions about sending us dispatchers involved in major incidents to critical stress debriefings. It hasn’t happened yet, and I doubt if it’s going to happen in the too near, or distant, future. There’s not enough of us to go around. We just deal with this madness in our own way. This is my way. I keep a journal. No one knows about this notebook, and definitely not what I write in it. I guess it helps. I’m still here, doing what I can’t stop doing.

I close my private little diary and shove it back into my purse, take a deep breath, and push open the car door. Time to face the world.

Last night we saved a few, lost a few, and helped others along the way. The worst of it all is that we lost a member of our family, but I’m the one that has to live with the reality that I sent him to his death.

There are three little kids who are now without a mother and father—one of them got shot, the other is on their way to a long stay in prison. Harrison never did call, so tonight at work I might find out which one survived, what happened inside that house of horror. Then, again, I might not. I will keep those children in my prayers forever, the phone call will become another fixture in one of my nightmares.

There’s a young bride who will not be holding her policeman husband ever again. Williams was just three days back from a honeymoon to France. I hope the best for his widowed bride. She will need someone to talk to, someone who can help her through this emotional time. Just imagine. Tragedy on the heels of such romance. This one, I know, will become a nightmare all its own.

The hardest thing I ever do, day in and day out, after nights like tonight, the ones that tax every molecule of my being down to the very inner soul, is walk into my home, hug my children, kiss my husband, and pretend that, inside, I am not slowly falling apart. But, I guess I’ll just keep doing what I do until I can’t do it anymore. It’s what I do. I don’t think I can ever do anything else again.

I push the car door closed behind me. Time to put on a happy face and celebrate another fabulous Christmas. I get to open gifts with my two children and husband. Then I’ll begin preparations for our dinner. The in-laws are coming over. While the turkey cooks, I’ll try to get some sleep.

It may be days or weeks before restful sleep ever happens on a regular basis again, and maybe not ever. Today will be one of those sleepless ones. The longer I’m at this job, the more numerous they become. Maybe by the time I retire I won’t have to sleep at all.

After I get the kids off to bed, after they unwind from all the excitement, I might even get in a little nap before going back to work. Sometime during the day my husband will probably want to hear about last night. He says it helps him to understand what I go through. I have to give him credit. He tries. But, I doubt he’ll ever truly understand.

I push the front door open, and walk in to the delightful squeals from two beautiful children that I hope do not follow in my footsteps down this nightmare filled path I call a life.

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