When you dial 911, he picks up the phone

Share this:
April 16, 2002 // UPDATED 1:17 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Ellen Nigon
Ellen Nigon

A Minneapolis 911 operator gets used to calmly handling emergencies -- and weirdos -- but pays a personal cost in strange ways

John Reed says that occasionally a new acquaintance will ask, "So, what do you do for a living?"

Nonchalantly, Reed replies, "Oh, I save lives."

He's not kidding. Every day, Reed and his fellow 911 operators go to a job in the Minneapolis City Hall basement that can entail helping people through domestic abuse, talking others out of suicide until rescue workers arrive or maybe just trying not to laugh at some of the outlandish stories people tell.

One person routinely calls 911 to ask if they can stop the airplanes from flying. "They say when the planes flush their toilets, the fecal matter hits them," Reed said. "(They say), 'Can you just make everybody take a bus or a train?'"

A phone that never stops ringing

More often, a 911 operator's day is spent dealing with true emergencies. From the minute he sits down for his 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. shift, Reed is inundated with calls.

On a recent Friday afternoon, one woman calls sounding extremely upset. She says that her son's friend has become ill and cannot speak. She thinks it may have something to do with his diabetes.

Calmly, as though he deals with situations like this every day (which he does), Reed asks the woman for the boy's age and to relate what happened. At the same time, he types the information into one of his two computers. The computer he types on works like an instant messenger, e-mailing, in a sense, medical personnel to go to the woman's home. The other computer contains a massive database of resources to help people get help.

It's a slow day, Reed says, but the calls come one after another. Many of them are routine. Someone has accidentally tripped an alarm. Or someone calls and hangs up. When they get a hang-up call, 911 operators automatically call the number back and notify the other operators of the incident.

When Reed first started at the Emergency Communication Center, it was summertime and very busy. "One of the first weeks I was working, I had a Spanish-speaking kid call who was about 17 or 18 who wanted to kill himself because he was gay and his parents didn't understand him," he said. "You just have to wing it and try to say the things that will keep the caller on the line until you can get somebody out to help him."

Calm through emergencies, crying over cartoons

Reed was first attracted to the job simply because it sounded interesting and he was curious as to whether he could cut it. "I just didn't realize how hard it would be. There's so much you have to know and have to have at your fingertips without a moment's thought because the phone just keeps on ringing," he said.

A man calls from a grocery store saying that an intoxicated woman wants a ride from the store to a detoxification center. Reed tells him that he can't send a ride for detox unless she is endangering others. "We're not a taxi service," he tells the grocer in a monotone.

But when he gets off the phone, Reed says, "That's really hard to do."

Today, most of Reed's callers have been relatively calm. However, many days, callers scream, babble or curse at him. "We have to remember that they're always acting out of a situation of fear or anger or grief or pain," Reed said. "A problem associated with that is for us to stay fresh for each call."

And when callers are yelling at them, 911 operators cannot yell back. So, often that pent-up frustration gets released on coworkers. "After a while we can take virtually everything we get over the phone, but if one of our coworkers says something to us in the most mild, amusing way it's really hard to take," he admitted. "You start getting paranoid, thinking that they're slamming you for something."

To prevent hurt feelings, Reed says that after he says anything to a co-worker sarcastically, he follows with, "Of course I was kidding."

After working as a 911 operator for three years, Reed said that he can handle virtually any call without getting emotional. However, he has seen his job affect other aspects of his life. "I've noticed that nothing really bothers me here for some reason. But I get emotional for a split second at the stupidest things, like 'The Simpsons' or long-distance telephone commercials," he said.

"Classic weirdos"

Later this same Friday afternoon, Reed gets a call that, at first blush, seems quite serious. A man calls saying he'd like to report an attempted murder. Asked when the attempted murder occurred, the man replies, "1996."

He says something about being overdosed on drugs in 1996. Reed transfers him to the homicide division.

"We get the classic weirdos," Reed said.

Reed actually had the pleasure of meeting one of the "weirdos" in person.

For the past few years, 911 has received calls from southeast and southwest Minneapolis residents reporting a con artist. "He goes up to people's houses and asks for money to take care of his asthmatic daughter," Reed said. "As soon as we hear that he's out we send a message to all the squads in the area and each one of us to be aware that he's out there again."

One night when Reed was watching TV, he got a knock at his door. "It was him. He asked me if I could give him a ride to the pharmacy to help his poor asthmatic daughter," Reed said. "I burst out laughing. By the time I got done laughing he had fled. It was like a dream come true, actually meeting one of our famous callers."

But it's not the laughs that keep Reed working as a 911 operator. "Basically it's the idea of being able to help people," he said. "You have to really care about other people to continue. There's a certain humanity that overrides people quitting."