“At a moment’s notice.” An interview with Caroline Burau

Posted on July 18, 2012 by

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Caroline Burau is the author of Answering 911: Life in the Hot Seat, a Reader’s Digest Editor’s Choice and finalist for the Minnesota Book Award. Burau works as an emergency medical dispatcher in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she lives with her husband, daughter, and three cats.

Her essay. “Life and Death and 911” gives a wry perspective on a job that’s both monotonous and surprising, devastating and funny. Interview conducted by Chad Vogler.

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As a 911 dispatcher, your access to a crisis situation is inherently mediated by a telephone. How desirable is it to have this distance from an unfolding emergency?

It’s good and it’s bad. I’m grateful to never be in danger, as the medics, cops and firefighters sometimes are. But with some calls, I feel very helpless, and wish I could just beam myself into the scene, either to get a look at what is really happening, or at least to be some kind of help or comfort.

What are the challenges of living partly in a world where emergency is the norm, partly in an everyday world where it is very uncommon? Is it difficult to reconcile the two?

It can be very difficult to keep perspective in this job. When my daughter was in high school and trying to assert her independence, there were times when I could only think in terms of worst-case scenarios. Like, “You can’t go to the beach without me, you’ll drown!” She could see I had a lot of fear based on things I hear about on the job, and she got pretty frustrated some days.

Do you think your daughter understood your reasons for worrying?

I think my daughter understood her parents as much as a teenager can, which is not much at all. Later, when she has her own children I suspect she will.

Have you ever received a call that you wish you had handled differently, or which you felt unprepared to handle?

There have been many calls, especially during the rookie years, that I would love to have handled differently, or at the very least, more quickly. But the calls are so varied and can get so strange, that there comes a point where you have to just forgive yourself for not knowing every proper response for every possible scenario at a moment’s notice.

At one point in the story, you describe a call from a mother whose four-year-old son has been shot and, as you glean from the mother’s description of the boy, killed by his six-year-old sister. How do you manage in a situation where the conclusion is evident to you, but remains an emergency for the caller?

My main goal with her, once I felt certain her son was beyond help and she was out of danger, was just to stay present with her until somebody else could physically be there. We get a lot of calls like that, where we can’t help in any other way than just to keep the caller from being alone and going into shock during a really terrible time.

How would you characterize your function in that situation? What obligations, if any, do you have to the caller’s well-being?

The other function of staying on the line is to make sure that help has been sent to a correct address. Callers often get those details wrong when they’re in a panic. I have an obligation to talk to my caller as long as he or she will let me, and to make sure all the right people are dispatched to the right location.

As a means of coping with the stress of the job, you and your coworkers joke about your abilities to influence the outcome of an emergency; as you say, “sarcasm beats grieving every time.” I wonder if you could describe how sarcasm, in particular, is so useful.

For the majority of calls, the most we can do to help a caller is to get help dispatched as fast as humanly possible. If the patient has already passed, even the act of dispatching help is futile. You can’t let that be a weight around your neck, so sometimes we joke about “saving lives” in terms of how little we actually get to do that. And humor, sarcasm or whatever is probably most used during situations when no lives were ever actually at risk, such as a sprained ankle or a bad headache, when help is requested and dispatched, but maybe a trip to urgent care would have been more appropriate. I don’t want to make it sound like we joke about death all the time, because of course we take those calls very seriously and do whatever we can until we know with a certainty that a situation is beyond help.

And of course, there’s a big difference between finding humor in a situation and finding humor in somebody’s suffering. We don’t find humor about people’s suffering, unless it’s our own, which is totally fair game!

Before working in a 911 call center, you were a newspaper reporter. What accounted for your career change?

As a police reporter, I felt like an interloper in crisis situations, not a helper in any way. As a dispatcher, you are a fly on the wall in crisis situations, so it can be exciting, but you are also a key part of the equation, and most days, you get to feel like you really made things better for somebody.

You also mention, in your essay, that being a 911 operator wasn’t quite what you expected. Did you ever consider another career change after this became apparent? 

I would say I think about changing careers a lot, but only because I think there is a limit to how much of this kind of work that anyone should take, and I don’t wish to become a hardened veteran who stays too long just to get a certain pension. I’m actually training to become a yoga instructor right now. This may never be a full time thing, but at least a part time job that is about as far from the dispatching environment as one can get.

You must have been exposed to many of the possible ways to die. Has this knowledge shaped your idea of an ideal death?

I don’t think much about my own death or about what the ideal death might be. All I know is that it’s inevitable, and that my goal is to make the most of every day. I almost always say “I love you” when I say goodbye to a loved one, because you never when that last day might be. This has led to occasionally saying “I love you” to the wrong person, and even once to a caller. There are worse things you can say, I suppose.

Do you think the caller heard you?

Not sure if that caller heard me, no. If he did, I hope it gave him a good laugh.

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Chad Vogler is an editorial assistant at Creative Nonfiction and a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh’s MFA program in poetry.

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