Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Ammon and I sit in the phone room on the fourth floor of the police-headquarters building on the corner of Broadway and 14th Street.
Since September 11, we’ve heard a lot about fire fighters and police officers. But the first people to absorb the shockwave of emergency situations are the 911 operators. Last Spring, I spent a shift with San Diego police dispatcher Kathy Ammon, and it didn’t take long for the human-drama element of the job to hit me.
As I pull up a chair at Ammon’s cubicle at noon on a mid-March Thursday, she says, “The guy who is sitting behind you has a trainee with him, and they just had a call...this little baby died. He’s having a hard time with it. So he’s up walking around and his trainee is too.”
Ammon, who has worked this job for 20 years, taps at her computer keyboard until she finds a file pertaining to the dead-baby call. “It was a 911 call from this address.” She points to a box in the lower right corner of the screen, displaying a phone number, the address of that phone line, and the name of the line’s owner. “It was a report of death. Here’s the comments we typed onto the case. It says paramedics first, which means we let paramedics talk to this caller first. Then we have a baby not breathing, and the paramedics were giving CPR instruction to this man on how to revive this child, and it does not appear that they were able to do so. And they took the child to Children’s Hospital. We have officers at Children’s Hospital, but we don’t know what happened yet.’
Ammon and I sit in the phone room on the fourth floor of the police-headquarters building on the corner of Broadway and 14th Street. The floor-to-ceiling windows in the room face west, providing an expansive view of the bay and city skyline. But we have our backs to the window, and Ammon has closed the vertical blinds to cut down on screen glare. None of the usual snapshots, posters, or vacation knickknacks adorn the cubicle. Who sits at what work station here in the phone room is determined on a first-come, first-served basis. When Ammon is done using this station, another dispatcher from the next shift will use it.
But what the cubicle lacks in personal touch it makes up for in ergonomics. The chair adjusts for height and back support; the curved, earth-toned keyboard and monitor tables adjust for height as well; the color monitor’s 17-inch screen saves the eyes from squinting. And when Ammon logs on to the 911 system, a reminder to adjust all equipment to optimum settings pops up on the computer.
Once she’s signed in, she points to a red box in the top right corner of her monitor. “Okay, this shows us that there’s a 911 call holding.” She clicks a key to answer the calL “Nine-one-one emergency.” There is no phone on her desk. The call is connected through the computer, and she’s wearing a headset. I pick up a handset she’s hooked up for me to eavesdrop. Instead of a panicked caller, I hear the piercing screech of feedback. “Pull that out,” Ammon gestures toward the handset plug-in and then says to the caller, “Okay, go ahead...He fell down? Okay, let me have you talk to medical aid.” With that, she clicks on a screen button labeled Paramedics. “If there are any 911 calls for the paramedics, fire department, or police, it’s going to come right into this room. If it turns out to be a fire department call, I click here, where it says fire, and it transfers this whole thing over to their system, but I can still listen. Just now, I transferred it to paramedics. But I listened, because if she told them,‘He fell... because the other guy shot him,’ then I would know the police need to go to that, too. But she said, ‘He passed out,’ and I know the police don’t need to go to a guy who has passed out. Sometimes, the paramedics or fire department may ask for PD to go also. There might be a crowd, or they may have some safety concern. So we’ll send a police unit to the scene.”
I’ve heard the 911 system criticized for bogging down police and fire departments; every time 911 is dialed, critics claim, they have to roll to the scene and investigate. Ammon says it’s not true. “A lot of times, we get calls from kids who call up, say something nasty, then hang up. I had a call yesterday in which a kid called up and said ‘F. you!’ and hung up on me. That, I didn’t send police. But if a kid calls up and says,” she affects a childish playful voice,“ ‘Help me, help me!’ Then I will send somebody out, even though I might think it’s bogus. And sometimes you’ll have people call up and hang up from a residence. I’ll call back and say, ‘Hi, this is San Diego police. Somebody dialed 911 from your address,’ and they say,‘I’m sorry, my baby was playing with the phone,’ that sounds legitimate. I won’t send somebody. But if they say something like, ‘From here? No, nobody called from here,’ I’ll probably send somebody out because I know it came from there. If I have the slightest doubt, I send somebody.”
Within a couple of seconds of a 911 call coming through Ammon’s computer, the address and number of the phone the call was placed from pop up on her monitor. “If your phone number and address are unpublished," she explains, “meaning they’re not in the phone book, I’m still going to get them. The only thing I don’t get is your name. But if your name is published, I get it just as it’s written in the phone book.
“This shows that we have less than three calls waiting.” She touches a green box in the top right comer of the screen, which reads, “less than three calls in queue.” “That means there are less than three people dialing 911 in the city and not getting an answer,” Ammon says.
“What are they getting?”
“They’re hearing a ring, or a recording that says, ‘All of our dispatchers are busy; please don’t hang up.’ Our goal is to keep this queue empty, and, frankly, it normally is. Now, if you were here during late-night hours, it gets busier.”
Another myth I’d heard about the 911 system runs something like this: If you call, you’d better have an emergency. Otherwise, you’ll be committing some kind of crime and be subject to prosecution. Like most myths, it’s part true, part false. Yes, 911 should only be used for emergencies. Don’t call 911 because a car is parked illegally in front of your house. Don’t call because the loud party next door has gone past midnight. Do call if your car was just stolen in front of your eyes, but don’t call if you get back to your parking spot after three hours of shopping and find your car gone. The regular, non-emergency number for San Diego police will do just fine. But should you forget this advice, the sternest punishment you’ll receive is Ammon, or another police phone operator, telling you, “That’s not an emergency, sir. Please hang up and call 619-531-2000.”
You may not even get that. “Once I got a call from this lady,” Ammon recalls, “and she felt so bad about calling about a truck parked over the sidewalk. She was in a wheelchair and couldn’t get around it. She kept saying,‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry for calling.’ I told her it’s okay, not to — San Diego Emergency —” this is how Ammon answers her 911 calls. “Hello...San Diego Emergency, are you there? If you don’t talk to us. I’m going to send the police to...” she reads the address off her screen. After another few seconds, she turns to me and says, “What we have here is what we call an open line. Nobody is talking to me, but the line is open. So what I did here is I dispatched an officer to it.”
Ammon dispatches an officer by entering the information from a caller into her computer and sending it to a radio dispatcher in the next room, who assign* a police officer in the field to the case. In this case, because the possible reasons for a phone being open on a 911 call range from a child playing to a heart-attack victim unable to speak, to a hostage situation, the call receives a high priority. “So now,” Ammon explains, “we have to stay on the phone until either they hang up or an officer arrives.”
A minute later, the phone disconnects. Ammon brings up another screen on her computer that shows that a police “unit” is already rolling to the scene. As she points that out to me, another call clicks in, but before she can say, “San Diego Emergency,” it disconnects. “Someone calling from a pay phone and hanging up.”
She knows it’s a pay phone because the word “coin” accompanies the phone number and address in the box occupying the lower-right corner of her screen. “I’m going to try calling back, though it probably won’t receive the call.”
A noise like that of a fax machine verifies her prediction. “That sound means the pay phone doesn’t accept calls. So I’m going to send an officer out there.”
The cubicle next to Ammon’s still stands empty. It’s now 12:30 p.m., and the dispatcher and trainee who handled the dead-baby call just before I arrived are still walking around unloading the stress of the incident. “We get so many calls like that,” Ammon says. “A couple of days ago, I talked to a lady whose husband had shot himself. I picked up the phone, ‘San Diego Emergency,’ and she said, ‘My husband just shot himself. I had the address here, but we always verify it. I said,‘What’s your name?’ She said,‘Ruth.’ I could tell she was really upset. I said, ‘What’s your address?’ She gives me the address; I immediately put the call in, so we had officers rolling. So I asked her exactly what happened. She said, ‘I was downstairs getting the laundry, and I heard a noise so I thought my husband had fallen. So I went upstairs to see what had happened, and he had a gun in his hand and blood was coming out of his mouth.’ As she’s telling me this I’m telling the officers through the computers —the police cars have computers in them and they can read what I’m typing. I was also trying to get her to stay on the line with me. She kept saying,‘I want to go to him...I want to go to him.’ But I didn’t want her to go to him. Number one, we don’t want her to disturb the scene. And even if he was still alive, there was probably nothing she could do. So she stays on the line and is saying, ‘Why did he do this to me? We’ve been married 60 years.’ Then she kept saying,‘I want to call my friend, I want to call my friend.’And I told her,‘The police are on their way and we will help you call her as soon as we get there.’ She said, ‘When are they going to get here? Why is it taking so long?’ Well, I have this clock here on my screen that tells me how long the call has lasted, and it said three minutes, fifty-five seconds. But it must have seemed like forever to her. I told her, ‘We have paramedics responding. They’re already on the way.’ It was pretty bad. I felt horrible. But we get those kinds of calls a lot.
“In that particular case,” Ammon continues,“I talked until the officers got there. Then they take over. And then we have this thing called Crisis Intervention. They’re private citizens who volunteer for people in crisis. So we called them and asked them, ‘Could you respond to this situation? It’s an old lady whose husband just killed himself.’ So the crisis people came in and talked to Ruth, calmed her down, helped her make the calls she needed to make. That frees the police to do their job. And they stay as long as it takes. Sometimes on a call like that, the police could be there for quite some time.
"And if they have to sit there and take care of the poor lady and talk to her, they can’t do what we need to do. And it takes the officers out of service for the next call. But we also recognize the feet that she needs some help. That’s where Crisis Intervention comes in.”
After a call such as Ruth’s or the dead-baby call earlier, the dispatcher who handled it doesn’t necessarily have to deal with the resultant stress on his own. “Whenever you get a call that’s of a sensitive nature, what happens is we have people who are dispatchers who are what we call ‘peer support’ and they’ll come take you out of the center, take you to the lounge or wherever you want to go, and sit and talk to you and try to help you cope with what you just had to listen to.”
Yet the peer-support system doesn’t kick in automatically. The dispatcher who took the call has to ask for it, or somebody nearby has to notice what’s going on and request it. “For example, with the baby,” Ammon says, “I noticed it happening, so I went to them and told them. But we are so busy and have so many calls coming in that a lot of times we don’t catch it. So really, the person who takes the call needs to make that first step to let somebody know, ‘I just heard this call, and it’s upsetting, and I want to talk to somebody.’ Whether they say that to the person who is peer support or they say it to the person sitting next to them, as long as the word gets to somebody, then we can deal with it But a lot of times, you just log on to the next call because we’re so busy and sometimes it doesn’t hit you right away. You might take another call or two, and then it hits you.”
“After 20 years on the job,” I ask her, “are you still affected by emotional calls?” Ammon hesitates before answering. “I think you eventually learn,” she says, “that the best way you can help people is to remain outside of it, not take anything personally. Instead of getting emotionally involved, you approach the call from the standpoint of ‘I ask you some questions, and you’re going to give the answers so that we can get you what you need faster.’
“San Diego Emergency,” Ammon answers another 911 call. The voice on the other end sounds like it belongs to a woman in her early 20s.
“Oh. I’m sorry, I was trying to call information.”
“No problem,” Ammon says, before turning toward me and chuckling. “That happens so often.”
“I can’t see why it would,” I comment. “The nine and four buttons are nowhere near each other.” “I know.” Ammon’s chuckling swells to laughter.
“Do all 911 calls in the county come here?”
“No. If you call on a land line phone within the city of San Diego it comes here.” Ammon answers. “If you call from unincorporated areas of the county, or cities that are patrolled by the sheriff’s department, Pacific Bell routes your call to the sheriff’s department. Chula Vista has its own PD. National City has its own PD. Nine-one-one calls in those cities go to their police departments. Imperial Beach is handled by the sheriffs, but sometimes somebody in San Diego will call 911 with an emergency that’s actually in Imperial Beach. Then we transfer it to them. And let’s say that one of our officers needs a cover unit, and they happen to be near the sheriff's border; we’ll call the sheriffs for assistance. We have direct lines to the sheriffs and all of the other agencies up on the supervisor’s consoles. We have a direct line to the airport, the Harbor Police, FBI...any kind of enforcement agency plus fire and paramedics. It’s just a matter of pushing the button, picking up the phone, and we’re right there.”
A mobile-phone 911 call goes to the California Highway Patrol, who will handle it if it’s an on-highway emergency. If it’s not, they’ll toss it to the appropriate agency. Ammon finds one such case as she scrolls through the list of ongoing calls on her computer.“Here’s one that came from CHP,” she says.“It’s a jumper. That means someone is going to jump off a bridge.” She clicks on the entry and pulls up more detailed information and begins pointing out the poignant details, now and then translating police code into laymen’s terms. “It’s at northbound 805 at Lincoln.. .. Here’s the jumper’s description...this officer is talking to him now, then he says he’s taking him into custody. . .then it says he’s being uncooperative. They called an ambulance for him.. .says he has a head injury. We ended up giving him to paramedics... San Diego Emergency....”
This call, from the South Bay, is reporting that a missing person reported earlier has been found. Ammon calls up the case file on her computer and updates it. This call is about as interesting as she gets for the first two and a half hours. Over the course of the afternoon, I lose count of the pay-phone hang-up calls. And there must have been a dozen hangup calls from middle schools around the city. Ammon calls each back. No pay phones accept callbacks, so police officers, because of the small chance something is actually wrong, are dispatched to check each one. At the middle schools, frustrated administrators apologize and say, “No, there’s nothing wrong. Must have been a student playing a prank.” “No problem. Thank you,” Ammon responds to each of them.
About 2:00 in the afternoon, the monotony of school and pay-phone calls breaks when a girl about 13 calls from San Ysidro.“Hi...” She sounds nervous. “I’m at home sick by myself and there are a bunch of guys in a black Mustang parked in front of my house. They look like they’re checking out my brother’s car.”
“Okay, what’s your name, honey?” Ammon asks. “Maria.”
“Maria, how many men are out there?”
“It looks like three men and a girl.”
“And they’re in a black Mustang?”
“Are they black, white, Hispanic?"
“One might be black. The other two are Hispanic?” “Okay, Maria. We have an officer on his way. Are
you scared a little bit?” “Yes.”
“Well, just stay on the phone with me. Where is your brother’s car?”
“It’s in the driveway...” Maria’s voice suddenly gets higher and shakier. “One of them is getting out of the car. I’m scared.. .what should Ido?”
“Just stay on the phone with me, honey. An officer is on his way.”
“Okay...can you hold on?” Maria puts Ammon on hold and clicks back in after ten seconds. She sounds relieved. “My mom says those are my brother’s friends. They’re coming over to work on the car with him. I’m so sorry.”
“That’s okay, honey. Is your mom on the other line?” “Yes.”
“So everything is all right.”
“Yes, I’m sorry.” “That’s okay, honey. Bye-bye.”
Another exciting portion of my 911 afternoon comes about 3:00 p.m., when the manager of a check-cashing store in Midcity calls. “I have a crime in progress here.”
Quickly but calmly, Ammon begins questioning him, typing in the answers as she goes. “What kind of crime is it?”
“A man is trying to pass a false check.”
“Have you confirmed that?” Ammon asked.
“Is he in there right now?"
“Is it a counterfeit check or stolen?”
“And what’s your name?”
“My name is Craig.”
“Okay, Craig,” Ammon says, “don’t hang up on me.” With that, Ammon clicks on a screen button labeled “Hot Call,” which connects her to the lead dispatcher’s desk. A hot call is one in which a crime is in progress. The lead dispatcher listens in and passes the information that Ammon gleans from the“RP”— reporting party. “It’s a 470 in progress,” Ammon tells the lead before resuming her interrogation. “Craig, can you tell me where he is right now?”
“He’s in the lobby.”
“Is he white, black, Hispanic?”
“How old is he about?” “Looks like late 50s.” Craig is staying remarkably calm while I feel myself moving toward the edge of my seat.
“What’s he’s wearing?” Ammon continues.
“Jeans and kind of a white windbreaker.”
“Is he still there?”
“Yes, he’s still sitting in the lobby. He’s sitting right by the window to the right as you walk in the door.” “Okay.” Ammon mutes her headset microphone and directs my attention to her monitor. “We can look at this and see all the officers who are responding. This officer right here is a K-9 unit. We don’t usually use K-9 units unless it’s a felony, and this is a felony crime. Or, if we had someone with a weapon, we might use a dog for that. But he doesn’t respond to routine calls.”
Unmuting her headset microphone, she asks Craig, “Anybody see any weapons on this guy?”
“Not that I know of,” Craig answers.
As all this is happening, Ammon is looking across the room to where a crowd of 10 or 12 has gathered around a former dispatcher who has brought her newborn baby into the center. “Lisa,” Ammon says to the woman, “I want to see her, but I’ve got a hot call.” Lisa holds the baby up so Ammon can get a peek. “Oh, she’s so cute.... Okay, Craig, is he still sitting there by the window?”
“We’ve got officers on the way. Stay on the line with me, okay?”
“He’s getting up...the officer is here.” Craig’s voice rises with excitement, and my heart starts beating faster.
“Craig!” Ammon says, her voice not louder but more commanding. “Does the officer see him?”
Craig ignores the question. “Can I hang up now?” he asks, “I need to go help the officer.”
“You know what, Craig?”
Ammon says with authority. “We don’t really want you to go out there; the officer will come in for you when he’s ready.”
Craig, calmer now and sounding a bit disappointed, answers, “Okay, okay. Thank you,” and the call ends. Ammon turns to me, “We don’t need him out there playing cop,” she says, and goes back to cooing over the baby whom Lisa has brought over for a closer look.
Amazed at her coolness during the hot call, I ask Ammon if it’s the product of training. “I don’t think you can be trained to not get excited along with him. I think it’s just something that, after you’ve handled so many calls, gets to be more routine. And, although I can’t train a trainee not to get excited, I can tell her how to control it — taking a deep breath, that sort of thing.” The use of the reporting party’s first name in high-adrenaline situations is a tool Ammon says she uses to keep things focused. “That’s why I ask a name,” she explains, “because when I say,” she uses her commanding tone, "Ernie, you’ll listen to me. Where if I say, ‘Sir... Sir,’ you may or may not. With Craig, he was doing fine at first. But right when he saw the officer out there, he started getting too excited. But with Ruth, the old lady whose husband committed suicide, she was excited from the get-go. So that was one of my first questions to her, ‘What’s your name?’ And when we talk to somebody — say, somebody who is considering committing suicide—we use their name all of the time. I’ll say, ‘John, what makes you feel this way?’ I’ll say their name a lot, and I’ll give them my name because it makes them feel like we know each other.”
I had always thought suicide calls were something handled by specialists. But if someone considering suicide calls 911, he is not transferred to anyone. “We handle it right here,” Ammon says. “We have training here on how to talk to them. I might transfer it to a supervisor if he has a weapon. If he says, ‘I’m sitting here with a gun, and I’m going to kill myself,’ then I will transfer it to a supervisor so she can listen and tell the officers what’s going on as it’s occurring. But I’m still handling the call. She, of course, can cut in on my line if she wants to.”
Late in the afternoon, a supervisor comes over to talk to the dispatcher and trainee next to us. While waiting for the dispatcher to finish a call, the supervisor tells us the news. “The hospital called. That baby they thought was dead is okay. They revived it. Turns out it had baby formula in its lungs.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful news,” Ammon says. “They’ll be so happy to hear it.” Before leaving, I ask Ammon what the most memorable moments of her career have been. Before she could answer me, she handles yet another pay-phone hang-up call. Finishing with that, she tells me, “l was working the day of the McDonald’s shooting down in San Ysidro back in the ’80s. I got the call from the post office across the street when they called in about the two-year-old that was shot. Oh, and you know what I did handle, which was — well, I don’t want to say it was fun — but remember that tank going down 163? I had the very first call on that. I’m sitting right here in this exact spot. This guy called and said, ‘There’s a tank rolling over everyone’s cars.’ I said, ‘A tank?’ He said, ‘Yeah, a big green Army tank.’ I said, ‘Oh, an Army tank,’ thinking the guy’s a wacko. And just as I said that, I hear everybody else in the room — when things get heated you can hear voices rising around the room — saying, ‘What kind of tank?’ So I started typing furiously. Of course, it was never funny, but it was... unusual to have a tank driving over things until it got to the point where he was actually endangering people. Then it was getting pretty scary. But when that call first came in, I was sure I was talking to some crazy guy, because who would think an Army tank would be bowling down the street, running over cars.”
Asked what the best and worst aspects of the job are, she responds, “The worst part of the job is handling the calls like Jeff had, where they thought a baby had died. The best part is talking to that girl, Maria. I feel better that she knows there is help here if she needs it.”