I’m usually happy to chat about my eleven years on the job when someone shows interest. I have dozens of stories to tell. But, the question I’ve been asked most often is: “What’s the worst call you ever took?” Sigh. Why do you ask that question? To those of you who have asked over the years, I reluctantly recount the worst 14-minute conversation I ever had as a 9-1-1 dispatcher.
And then the phone rang. I knew this was a cell phone call by the line it came in on. Technology and GPS weren’t as exact in 2005, so I was only anticipating a phone number—and that’s all I got when I pushed the button to answer.
Me: 9-1-1, what is the address of your emergency?
Call: (muffled screaming, crying, yelling, commotion)
My brain raced with possibilities. As I struggled to make sense of what I heard, I thought to myself, Big call coming in! No address and no GPS? Dang!
Me: 9-1-1! WHAT IS THE ADDRESS?!
Just by my volume, tone, and repetition, the other dispatchers knew to perk up and listen to me. When on duty, hyperaware dispatchers functioned virtually as one.
Call: My mom is dead. He shot my mom!
Me: Big call! Kid caller. Sounds really young.
Your mom is shot at what address?
No GPS. Please know your address, kid.
My firm voice urgently inquired. By restating “your mom is shot,” I hinted that my call needed law enforcement and medical assistance—but with only a phone number, dispatchers didn’t know where to send help. This call could be anywhere in our 9-1-1 call radius—over 2,300 square miles.
Call: I don’t know the address.
(continued commotion, muffled screaming)
Me: Okay. What city are you in?
Call: In Laverkin!
Me: Where in Laverkin? On what street?
Call: By the church.
Me: Do you know what street the church is on?
There are a few churches.
But that narrows it down. Good landmark, kid!
Call: No! She’s dead! My mom is dead. He shot her.
Me: Okay. Everyone is coming to help you. What’s your name?
I didn’t hear the gunshots. Other calls I took, the gunshots rang out clearly. End of life. Eerie peace. This call had too much commotion to hear the recognizable blasts. I could barely understand Taylor over the crying and muffled background noise.
Me: Okay, Taylor. How old are you?
Taylor: I’m nine.
Me: Nine? Did I hear that right? Who shot your mom?
Taylor: Her boyfriend.
Me: What’s his name?
Taylor: Cory. He shot her in the head.
Me: She saw that at NINE. Where is Cory?
In the house with a gun?
Would he hurt you? Maybe he left.
Taylor: I don’t know.
(children screaming and crying)
Me: Okay. Who else is there with you?
Who is crying?
Taylor: My little (muffled).
Me: Okay. Siblings, I’m guessing.
Three minutes into my call seemed like twenty. Why does this always seem to happen in slow motion? Other calls flooded in from neighbors that helped piece the story together. Man with a gun. Crying woman. Kids in the yard. Shots fired. He probably left. But we finally had the address.
Me: Okay. Get everybody into the bedroom and close the door.
Go into the bedroom and lock
the door so I know you’re safe!
Protect the children in case Cory was still there.
Taylor: She said to go in the bedroom! Come on!
(commotion, background noise)
Me: Good job! Get everybody in the bedroom.
I’ll stay on the phone with you.
Everybody in the bedroom.
Go, go, go!
Taylor had nobody except me; she was mine now.
Is Mom really dead?
Five other dispatchers were overwhelmed with citizen calls and police radio traffic trying to get officers and paramedics on scene.
Me: Is everybody in the bedroom?
(soft crying and sniffling continued)
Me: Good. Okay, are you guys all okay?
Taylor: Yes, we’re okay. But my mom is dead!
Me: We don’t know that, but I have an ambulance
and police officers coming as fast as they
can to help, okay? Are you guys hurt?
Taylor: We’re okay. What do we do?
Me: Just talk to me. Okay?
First officer arrived. Second officer pulled up. They verified the suspect left. Medical rushed in. Mom wasn’t going to make it. That didn’t stop them from trying.
Me: Tell me about Cory.
So sorry, but I’ve gotta ask.
We don’t know anything about him.
Taylor: Okay. I’ll try.
Me: How old is Cory? 20? 30? 40?
Taylor: I don’t know.
Me: Okay. What’s his last name?
Taylor: Um. I don’t know.
Me: That’s okay. She’s nine.
What kid would know this?
Think! What would a nine-year-old know?
Um, how old is your mom?
Taylor: She’s 26.
Me: Wow. Mom’s young.
Okay. And what’s your mom’s name?
Taylor: Brea Kirchoff.
Me: You’re doing great.
Just stay with me, okay?
Me: Is Cory younger or older than your mom?
Taylor: Uh, I don’t know. Older?
Me: She’s not sure. She wouldn’t know.
I know you’re trying, honey.
You’re doing great.
Is he a white guy? Black guy? Hispanic guy?
Taylor: Um, white?
Me: She’s questioning.
Okay. What color is his hair?
Taylor: Um. I don’t know.
Me: She’s in shock. Who wouldn’t be?
Okay. Just stay in the bedroom.
I’m right here with you, okay?
A dozen officers were on scene. Nobody knew the boyfriend’s name. My coworkers researched previous calls involving Brea or Taylor. Any calls from that address in the last few years involving an adult male named Cory? Corey? Kory? Dispatchers dug into each possibility. Digging took time. Confirmed information was faster. We had nothing but a first name and an address; they didn’t match. He didn’t live there.
Taylor: Um. My little sister has to go potty.
Me: Of course! Kinda cute though. These poor kids. No mother.
They’re my kids now.
Protect them. Is it safe to let my kids out of the bedroom?
Where is this bastard?
What if he’s really in the house? Should she just pee in the corner?
No. Too humiliating. They’ve been through enough.
Safe. Keep them all safe.
Okay. Here’s what I want you to do.
I know you’re safe in the bedroom,
so I want all of you kids to go TOGETHER to the bathroom,
shut the door, and lock it! Okay?
Taylor: Okay. She said all of us go together and lock the door.
Come on! No, all of us!
(muffled sounds of movement)
Me: Okay, is everybody in the bathroom?
Me: Close the door and lock the door!
Taylor: It’s locked.
Me: Okay. How long have I been on this call? An hour?
Only ten minutes so far.
What else does a nine-year-old know
that will help officers? Think!
Taylor: Flush the toilet.
I want my mom! But she’s dead.
(renewal of panicked crying)
Me: Keep her talking about other things. School!
I know, honey. She’s in the ambulance, and
they are taking good care of her, okay?
Just stay on the phone with me.
What grade are you in at school?
Taylor: I made my mom a valentine at school on Friday, and
I didn’t give it to her because
it wasn’t Valentine’s Day yet.
I was going to give it to her tomorrow.
And now she’s dead.
My mom did everything for me. I loved her so much.
And now I’ll never be able to give her
the valentine I made because she’s dead.
Me: What the hell do I say to that? What can I say?
Taylor and I spoke for 14 minutes. She cried to me; I cried later. The call haunts me. Every February 13th, it’s worse.
Everyone has an invisible scar. So, next time you’re talking to a police officer, paramedic, or military veteran, would you really ask them about the worst situation they ever encountered? Maybe it’s hard to talk about. Maybe you have something you don’t want to talk about either.
In memory of the woman I never met
1978 – 2005
While Christmas shopping one December almost twenty years ago, I chanced upon a cute tin with a beaming Santa and one word, COAL, on its cover. Curious, I opened the tin, and there, nestled inside, was a single, honest-to-goodness lump of coal. I did not hesitate. I threw that tin into my basket and headed for the register. Then I spent far too much time in the days before that Christmas pondering and calculating: Who was the most deserving recipient of the COAL that year? You see, the COAL tradition in our family was new to us that year, but it follows the old coal-in-the-stocking tradition that most of us have heard of, if not been threatened with it. It will likely surprise no one that the year I bought the COAL, two of my three children were teenagers. (The third was double-digit, though pre-teen.)
My firstborn, Kevin, received the COAL that inaugural Christmas morning. Ironically, he would not receive it again for almost a decade. Instead, his sister and my middle child, Glynne, became the serial recipient of the COAL. For years she made my decision easy as she was a virtual COAL slam dunk. Glynne actually came to regard the COAL as a badge of honor – until, that is, the year my youngest, Colin, found the COAL at the bottom of his stocking. How his sister crowed with glee!
Since that fateful Christmas morning, the COAL tradition has expanded, resembling a competition and, at times, a game of intrigue. The three kids and their father lobby about the others’ “COAL-worthiness.” They are merciless in their attempts to throw each other under the bus for any action or statement that strikes them as more naughty than nice. Throughout the year, any one of them will break into the chant “COAL! COAL! COAL!” if someone else’s behavior warrants. They also ponder and calculate likely recipients, vigorously jockeying to put someone (anyone!) else in COAL position.
My response to their involvement has been to triple my supply of COAL, in part because the family has grown. Glynne’s boyfriend, Nate, and their Standard Poodle, Layla, now share Christmas with us; therefore, they are in the running for the COAL. Neither wasted any time earning it: Nate for scoffing at the COAL tradition, and Layla for knocking me down.
Every Christmas morning, after the inevitable protests by the COAL recipient or recipients (some years multiple COAL is awarded) and smug laughter by everyone else, I quickly collect the COAL and carefully hide it away. This guarantees that I will retain my solo status as Awarder of the COAL and, consequently, non-receiver of the COAL, especially as the “COAL! COAL! COAL!” chant is actually aimed at me at times. And my name more and more frequently is in the “COAL-worthy” conversations. But traditions need to be cherished, respected, and preserved. That is why I intend to keep the COAL tradition pure by maintaining full control.
Eventually, our family expanded. Kevin married Caroline; they got a dog, DIPA. Colin became engaged to Steph; they rescued a dog, Honig. The result is almost double the pool for COAL recipients, not to mention almost double the intrigue and scheming. It reminds me of Game of Thrones, minus the body count, sex, and dragons.
Despite the increased competition, the 2018 decision was easy. Caroline was the hands-down winner of the COAL, although most thought DIPA was a shoo-in. Poor DIPA had suffered the misfortune of sharting on Caroline and the couch during my visit in November. Yet, the all-important scales of COAL justice tipped towards Caroline, the shartee, not DIPA, the sharter.
How is that possible? Caroline was sharted on, an innocent victim! Well, au contraire. You see, Caroline had lured DIPA onto the couch, despite an agreement with Kevin that the dog would not be allowed on the furniture. First, she allowed DIPA on a futon, then a recliner, next the couch. True, the dog is a prolific sharter; however, he would be sharting on the floor, not on Caroline/furniture, had the couple’s pre-dog agreement been honored. Case closed! COAL 2018 justly awarded.
COAL 2019 was not as obvious. The COAL pool was too murky, transgressions too evenly matched. I was stumped and close to not awarding it. However, while rummaging through my cache of Christmas “stuff,” I ran across a small canvas bag with a cute print of an RV camper. Serendipity.
I would give the COAL to Nate, my daughter’s husband, for following up on an ad for a $169 “fully equipped” camper from China, receiving only a $2 beaded bracelet for his money. To be fair, Nate pursued the ad more out of curiosity and a desire to please my husband, the finder of the ad, than out of naiveté. And he was a good sport about it. Plus, you could say my husband was more worthy of the COAL in this case. But that cute little bag sealed Nate’s fate. I tucked the tin in the bag, then deep-down into his stocking, and Nate became a repeat COAL winner. The crowd – and Nate – were shocked.
No one saw it coming because they knew what I didn’t: Nate had logged hours researching and shopping for my Christmas present from the kids, a laptop. It replaced the wonky tablet I had been suffering with for years. He would spend hours more on Christmas day helping set me up on the laptop, transferring documents from the tablet. (A similar scenario to what he had done the previous Christmas when he shopped for and set up a giant flat-screen TV for us.)
As you might suspect, I felt some guilt about my choice for COAL 2019. I scrambled for a way to make amends and, within a week, Nate received the first-ever Get Out of COAL Free Card. It guarantees COAL immunity – until December 26, 2020.
I left my rented flat in Paris before sunrise. Even at 6 am, the grind of Parisian life is evident. Swarms run frantic from train to train in packs, most resigned to the fate of a missed connection.
By seven, I was on a bus to Lyon.
In the idyllic French countryside, black and white cows graze under giant windmills. Lush farmland stretches out in patches of geometric greens and yellows. Thick trees dot the landscape. Green onions blow softly in the breeze. Above wildflowers of purple and red—which form gorgeous rashes on grassy hills—thin clouds hang close to the ground waiting to release gentle mist. Quiet French villages appear. One with a small community graveyard. Another, perched on a hill, slathered out under the façade of a castle.
On the road, we passed a pair of old Citroens. At a petrol station, a man with well-barbered hair and glasses filled up a convertible roadster. As we chugged away, a tan-colored mutt rolled in the trimmings of freshly cut grass, his owner screaming at him to return.
Halfway to Lyon, the elevation climbed, and our ears popped. Green mountains rose hazy in the distance. The land became tree-covered, but no truly mountainous region presented itself.
On the outskirts, power lines and transformers began to connect the more densely populated area. Industry Rose. Warehouses and familiar businesses with unfamiliar names. And then Lyon. Grand houses on steep hills. A bridge crossed the Rhône river which, along with the Saone, course through the city and provide much of its aesthetic charm.
Exiting the bus, a regional transit strike was in progress. I wandered away from the station Perrache into a park and sat in the grass. The sun was warm, and the grass was soft. An elderly woman with a miniature chow sat on a bench nearby eating a baguette. An elderly man, walking at a snail’s pace, approached holding the leash of a Jack Russell terrier with a black streak across its face. They spoke in French as he neared. The woman coyly held out her hand. The man kissed it before reaching into his back pocket and presenting a single rose. She smelled the rose and let it rest across her lap. From a picnic basket she produced a baguette and handed it to the man. He nodded and strolled away taking a bite and humming softly to himself.