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Stu Bykofsky: When you dial 9-1-1, these people hear you

IT'S A SLOW Saturday night in the police radio room, which you call 9-1-1. And you do call 9-1-1 - 3.4 million calls were rung up in the city in 2008, more than 9,000 a day.

The intake phone room, where 9-1-1 calls are answered, has about three dozen positions, each with a keyboard and three screens. (Yong Kim / Staff Photographer)
The intake phone room, where 9-1-1 calls are answered, has about three dozen positions, each with a keyboard and three screens. (Yong Kim / Staff Photographer)Read more

IT'S A SLOW Saturday night in the police radio room, which you call 9-1-1. And you do call 9-1-1 - 3.4 million calls were rung up in the city in 2008, more than 9,000 a day.

9-1-1's biggest night of the year is coming up - New Year's Eve. Call tsunamis also roll in on Mischief Night and on July Fourth, says Cpl. Joe Cannon, who's giving me a tour of the two connected rooms that comprise police radio. Blond and robust, Cannon wears a blue T-shirt with a badge printed on the pocket.

It's a slow Saturday night because rain, the policeman's best friend, is dousing the city. All is calm, but not very bright, for the two dozen 9-1-1 dispatchers working on the second floor of the Police Administration Building.

Low-priority calls are dribbling in - loud music, noisy parties, a burglary, some teens skipping a bill at Friday's on the Parkway.

It isn't until 1:15 a.m. that something serious, deadly serious, happens: A man is fatally shot during a brawl outside a Nicetown bar. Police cars are sent racing to the scene.

It's a police truism that when bars close down, violence goes up. Another truism: When the temperature goes up, so does the mayhem. But it's cold tonight.

With a thicket of high-tech computer screens, the darkened radio rooms put me in mind of the Starship Enterprise - if it had been mothballed for a decade and brought back to service dressed in hand-me-downs.

Look up, the ceiling is slats, like a boardwalk. Look down, the floors are covered with nondescript industrial carpeting. Dispatchers wear casual clothing and the best furniture is adjustable chairs over which dispatchers hang their overcoats. There's a coat rack in the hall, but few use it because of the theft problem.

In the Police Administration Building.

The intake phone room, where 9-1-1 calls are answered, has about three dozen positions, each with a keyboard and three screens. The dispatch room - where calls are radioed to police cars - is larger and a bit brighter, with plastic snowflakes hanging from the recessed overhead lights.

In dispatch, more than a dozen twin consoles are grouped geographically by city neighborhoods - Center City next to South Philly, for instance - and dispatchers can see ID numbers of available police cars on a screen. Dispatchers direct the cars in terse terms, emotionally flat.

Contrary to popular belief, almost all the dispatchers are civilians.

"The public doesn't understand that we're not police officers," I'm told by Port Richmond's Melissa Seidler, 29. The three-year 9-1-1 veteran was working on her birthday.

People call, thinking "we can fix anything. All we do is take the information and put the job in," Seidler says between calls.

"We get cursed at, get called names," she says.

Among 9-1-1's biggest headaches are crank calls, Cannon adds, tens of thousands of them each year. "People don't understand how stressed the operators are."

* * *

It's a hard job, with the pressure of the ocean's floor, but "it's a good-paying job. There used to be overtime, but it's dwindled," says Jim Eibell, 57, the senior dispatcher, on the job since 1970 when it was done with paper cards, not computers.

The union-covered job pays between $32,000 and $36,000.

"We're underpaid for what we do," says Mike Myers, 31, with 10 years on the job. Like Eibell, he lives in the Far Northeast. "We're essential employees."

Dispatchers work two weeks from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., then two weeks from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., with rotating days off. The 11 p.m.-to-7 a.m. shift is steady, with no rotation.

The job "sucks as far as a social life. . . . No one knows when you're working, you miss holidays," says Eibell, tall and lanky with a close-cropped gray beard. He's divorcing after 30 years of marriage.

On the other hand, April Crawley, 49, of Southwest Philadelphia, likes "switching back and forth."

Crawley, a single mother, has a mom who baby-sits, but other single mothers "have to worry about getting baby sitters," which is hard to do on a rotating shift.

"We had a couple of women who had to leave because of the baby-sitting problem," Crawley says.

While the close quarters can make the work environment convivial, dispatchers are monitored as closely as ICU patients.

Almost all calls are answered within two seconds. Computers check the number of calls dispatchers take, the length of each call, the time between calls, the time they are not available. They get two 15-minute rest breaks and a half-hour meal break during an eight-hour shift.

Most brown-bag it because there's no cafeteria and not enough time to get food outside, even though Chinatown is nearby. Supervisors clock everything but how long it takes to chew the flavor out of a stick of gum.

That's just one part of the stress.

* * *

The greatest stress happens "when a cop calls in an injury, a pursuit or 'assist officer,' " says Cannon.

"You feel like you have the cop's life in your hands," Myers says.

"When an officer shouts, 'Priority,' your nerves go because you know something big is getting ready to happen," says Crawley. "Dispatch has to worry about the officers' lives."

All the above is in the dispatch room. The intake room has its own set of challenges.

The 9-1-1 phones "are a little bit of everything, a lot of cranks and hang-ups," says the Northeast's Robert Paglia, 35, who's been on the job for about a year.

There are too many cranks and pranks and mistaken calls, even "pocket calls," which are accidental calls made from cell phones in people's pockets.

Pranksters may be surprised to learn that 9-1-1 knows what number they are calling from and can call that number back, and sometimes do.

* * *

To give me a feel for what it's like, I'm given headphones that plug into any console and allow me to monitor what the 9-1-1 caller and dispatcher are saying. I think it should be easy, since I spend a good portion of each day on the telephone.

But I'm not usually speaking to people who are panicked, fearful or angry, and most of my callers speak good English.

9-1-1 dispatchers get the very young and very old, native English-speakers and people with heavy accents, people who lay out a good narrative and others who skip around from subject to subject, moving back and forth in time.

I remember what Paglia had told me earlier: One of the hardest parts of the job is "getting the 'ear' for it."

While I'm listening and trying to figure out an address that sounds like "seven hundred forty-six," the dispatcher correctly types "1776" on her screen.

I find it hard to decipher what callers are saying, especially against noisy backgrounds. When dispatchers don't understand, they ask precise questions in a calm voice to get the necessary information.

It takes tremendous concentration and intense focus.

On one call, I hear voices in the background, loud music, screams. Is it a party or a murder?

I just didn't have the "ear" for it.

On another call, I hear a woman's voice and hubbub in the background. The dispatcher hears that six youths just walked out on the bill at Friday's. She gets a description, forwards it to a dispatcher who radios the nearest patrol cars.

Callers frequently call back to ask, or demand, where the cops are, because they called hours ago. "No one should have to wait three hours for a cop," says dispatcher Eibell.

Frustrated callers can be abusive to whoever answers the phone. Dispatchers are trained to squelch emotion, to remain calm and professional.

Another woman calls to say she's been threatened by the boyfriend she's just locked out of her home. As she is taking the information, the dispatcher sees a previous call from the same location - from the boyfriend, who called to complain about being locked out. A police car is sent to straighten it out.

It's a slow night in police radio, which you call 9-1-1.

E-mail or call 215-854-5977.

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