Every February Thirteenth: Memoir of a 9-1-1 Dispatcher
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