While Sarah, in a far corner, speaks hypnotically into her headset microphone using smooth, dulcet tones to calm the caller on the other end of the line, Roy lords over a cluster of four nearby dispatchers and says, “I shit my pants in a bathtub once.”
The room is small, compact, with no windows to distract the dispatchers from their duties. Brightly burning LED bulbs in the ceiling keep the facility lit twenty-four-seven, but the long shifts and lack of natural light suspend the room in a moment out of time. It could be any hour of any day. This day, it just happens to be 2:30 am. A Wednesday morning not unlike any other Wednesday on the floor.
“Who hasn’t shit in a bathtub once or twice?” Rachel Windsor says, the few other third-shifters chuckling and stealing glances at the supervisor sitting on a raised partition at the north end of the room. The Soop is oblivious, her head buried in a Kindle. One of those 50 Shades books, most probably, the ones that make her cheeks go pink and forehead all shiny with sweat. As if no one notices.
Outside, amongst the normals, Rachel wears the mask of a respectful and caring single mother of two. She drives four miles over the speed limit, not a single digit more, always uses her turn signals. Never forgets a please or a thank you at the supermarket or the Domino’s Pizza where she’s become a regular. Holds the laundromat door open with a patient smile, a basket full of clothes digging painfully into her hip as she lets the other mothers pass through, nudging her out of the way, whiskey and cigarette stink on their breath.
Always kind, Rachel is. Always respectful.
Inside, she is someone else. But aren’t they all? The question is,during the infant hours of a Wednesday morning, which one is real? The caring and kind Rachel who lends a soft voice to broken old ladies who’ve fallen down and can’t get up, or the snarky, unfiltered Rachel who jokes about defecating in bathtubs?
“Come on,” Roy says. “I’m serious.”
“So was I,” Rachel says.
A camera man chuckles, and Rachel throws him a wink.
The crew has been filming on site for three weeks now, shadowing dispatchers and supervisors alike, after a series of mishandled calls leaked out into the public through a Facebook page titled 9-1-1 Is A Joke In Your Town. The calls were nothing serious, nothing life-threatening. Simple errors made by exhausted dispatchers at the tail-end of a ten hour shift. A few less-than-perfect responses buried in the hundreds of calls they handled flawlessly every day.
But fearing a backlash from the ultra-sensitive online social justice mobs, the Department of Safety developed a PR task force designed to change the public perception of 9-1-1 operators (or “Emergency Telecommunication Professionals” as they preferred to be called). The brilliant idea? A heavily edited documentary, a sort of 9-1-1 reality show, to show the viewing public that dispatchers are just ordinary people performing in extraordinary situations.
At first, the call takers on the floor behaved like angels under the watchful documentary crew’s eye, toning down their language when not on a call, sprinkling a little extra sweetness into their voices when they were.
It didn’t last long.
“So I’m on the phone with this girl,” Roy says, “and I’d drunk a few beers that morning so I already had to pee when she called. But I really liked her. I was desperate to talk to her.”
“You were desperate alright,” Rachel says. “Haven’t changed much, have you?”
“And I didn’t want to hang up,” Roy continues. “I thought maybe I could quietly walk to the bathroom, climb into the tub, and pee while talking to her. And she wouldn’t even know.”
Rachel laughs. “The tub? You have a problem urinating in a toilet like an evolved human creature?”
“She’d hear his piss splashing into the toilet,” Dean Williamson says. “The bathtub is quieter.” Dean spends much of his shift slumped in a chair with a hood draped over his head. Though the others would never say it aloud, Dean is the one they worry about the most. The dark and quiet one who hides away in the corner where no one can hear him on his calls. The one who acts as if the job doesn’t affect him at all, when it likely affects him deeply and more profoundly than the rest. The one who might snap and remove himself—or others—from existence at any given moment.
He doesn’t speak often. But when he does, he makes it count.
Sarah hangs up and walks over, pulling her headset cord taut to hear the rest of Roy’s story. No one else is on a call. He has the floor’s attention now.
“But you know how it is when you’ve had a few,” Roy says. “The pee comes on quick. So I dropped my pants and pinched it off with one hand while holding the phone in the other—”
“Oh my god.” Wilson laughs, dropping his forehead into his hands.
“—and I’m dancing now, hopping from foot to foot like Peter Pan or a fucking hobbit or something,” Roy says.
His computer screen lights up in flashing green. He has a call.
“Perfect timing,” Sarah says. “I’m not sure I want to hear what happened next.”
Roy sits, rolls over to his computer, and clicks to answer. “9-1-1, what is your emergency?” he asks.
They can all hear the screaming through his headset. Incoherent words lost in distorted panic. An address appears on Roy’s computer screen. The caller’s location. He winces, turns down the volume in his ears and snaps his fingers at Wilson, beside him, warning him to be ready.
“Stay on the—” Roy says, then begins again, louder, and more forcefully. “Ma’am, stay on the line while I contact the police.”
Roy mouses over to the phone number on his screen, clicks it. As the system dials, he wraps his hand over the headset microphone, muting it, and asks Wilson to call an ambulance.
“What for?” Wilson says, dialing.
“I’ll tell you when I know.”
The documentary director motions for his cameraman to zoom in close. Roy is squinting at the computer, a tiny bead of sweat slipping from him temple down the side of his face. But he is calm, if a bit pale. No tremors in his voice or hands. A couple of the other dispatchers turn back to their desks, their People magazines, their Nintendo DS games.
“This is agent four-five-two,” Roy says into his mic. “I’m requesting an officer to three-seven-seven Pine Lane for a suspected shooting. I have a caller on the line saying she found her husband dead in the kitchen from what appears to be a gunshot wound to the head. I have my partner contacting EMS. Ma’am, speak with the police, please.”
The Soop has come down from her perch—the bridge, they call it—Kindle tucked under her arm. She holds a pen and notepad. Leaning over Roy’s shoulder, she copies down the name, address, and phone number of the caller listed on the screen.
Roy covers his mic again, asks her, “Should I stay on?”
“Wilson contacted EMS for you?”
“They’re on the way,” Wilson says.
“Then let it go.”
Roy disconnects the call. He slumps back into his chair. It’s the nature of the job. Zero to ten and then back to zero in a matter of seconds. It can’t be good for the heart.
The room has gone silent. The Soop climbs the few stairs back up to the bridge, sits, and begins typing up a report of the call. She looks longingly at her Kindle. Sighs.
The camera crew pulls back on Roy as the color returns to his face. He slowly stands, exhales heavily. Rotating the headset microphone up and away from his mouth, he pauses for a beat.
And says, “So I’m duck-running to the bathroom with my wiener pinched off in my hand . . .”
Roy: You’re not going to air that, are you?