With nearly six years as an Ada County 911 dispatcher, Jeff Austin estimates he has taken somewhere between "the upper one hundred thousands and a million calls," mostly from regular citizens who need help.
Austin is the smooth voice on the phone that calmly and politely answers, "911, what is your emergency?" as you and a hundred other motorists call to report the same accident on the connector. He and his fellow dispatchers work 12-hour shifts, directing firefighters to the blazes, police to the robberies and paramedics to the baby who isn't breathing. They are the ones who reassure you that help is on the way.
Austin and his team also get calls from distraught cat owners whose felines are up a tree, people who want to report a UFO and hunters who've hit a deer with their vehicle and want to know if they can tag it.
People even call emergency 911 to ask what the sheriff's non-emergency phone number is.
Ada County 911 operators take more than 500,000 calls in a year's time. Since 911 operates all day, every day of the year, that averages out to more than 1,000 calls each day.
How did you get into this?
My wife found it in the paper. I was looking for a new job. The previous company I was with was laying off people, so I thought I would start looking. My wife said, "hey they're hiring dispatchers at Ada County, maybe you should apply," and I said, "OK cool." It took about two to three months with the background check, polygraph. Then three months of training. New Year's Eve was my first night out of training. I just got thrown into the fire (laughs). It was definitely a make-or-break-you night.
Were you nervous when you started?
Yes. I've never had a job of this caliber. I mean, it all begins here, with people calling for help. The people that call here are under a lot of stress. No one calls in to 911 and says they're having a good day.
What's your most dramatic call?
It was a suicidal guy. He was armed and he was saying, "I'm going to kill myself, I'm going to kill myself." I talked to the wife first, and she got away. Now he's on the phone saying, "I'm gonna kill myself, you can try all your little negotiating tactics, I'm gonna do it, I got the gun." Then click, he hangs up. I called him back. By this time, we already have cops surrounding his house. I think they were paging a negotiator, but until we got the negotiator on, he has to talk to me for like 30 minutes. I was kinda worried that he was really going to do it. They finally got a negotiator and they talked him down.
Have you ever given CPR instructions and actually helped revive someone?
We don't really ever know how it ends. I've never had a situation where someone calls back and says, "Hey, those CPR instructions were great, you saved a life today." We just hope that it helps.
What calls are happy?
There are many different calls where there is joy. For example, baby delivery calls. To be a part of that, to hear it, hear the dad all freaking out. Those calls are really rewarding. They have a thing around here that if you deliver a baby, they put it on the board announcing it.
Do you ever have nightmares about some of this stuff?
In the beginning I did because I've never done anything like this before. I used to do customer service for a psychic hot line, if you can believe that (laughs). I had some really interesting people who called there, which prepared me for the interesting calls here. I don't want to say we get hardened, but I think time allows us to be stronger about it.
Do you get any weird calls?
When the Jackass TV thing was pretty popular, a guy at Wendy's was in a motorized wheelchair, naked at the drive in. The guy who worked there called in and was laughing. He's saying, "I think they're doing a Jackass show or something. There's a guy ordering food in a motorized wheelchair and he's naked."
Do people call and yell at you?
Oh, yeah. No one calls to say, "Hey Jeff, it's great out here, and how are you doing?" It's never like that. People sometimes get frustrated. For example, we have medical protocols and a lot of people don't like that. When we get a call for a medical emergency we have to ask a lot of questions—Where are you calling from? What's your phone number? Is the person breathing normally? People get frustrated, "Will you just get here? Are you sending anybody?" A lot of impatience. We try to keep reassuring them. Callers are under a lot of stress in these situations, and we understand.
Do you ever have people call as a joke?
Yes. They'll call and say, "Hey, come get me," or "F the police!" What they don't know is that we have neat little GPS for cell phones so we'll find ya. The downlink can pinpoint where they're at. The next thing they know, there's an officer knocking on their door.
Is it stressful?
It does get stressful. For example, you're working a really intense fire, and you have to get all different apparatus and different pieces of equipment there, and you're listening to five different channels at once. It gets hopping back here. The phones keep ringing. I go home and I don't answer the phone. You're here 12 hours a day and all you hear is that ring.
Do you ever second-guess how you handled a call?
No one beats themselves up more than us. You take a call, you're constantly critiquing yourself. What could I have done better? Nobody's perfect but we strive for it. We want to be the best. We want to be sharp. We don't get a lot of recognition or "atta boys." When an officer says, "Hey man, you did great on the radio," that goes a long way. This is where it all starts, and not everybody can do it.
Do you ever feel that people's lives are in your hands?
Yeah, you have [to] take it seriously. For example, if you get the address wrong, it can delay [the] response by a few minutes, where an officer could have prevented someone from hurting someone.
What's your busiest day?
Fourth of July.
Is there any quiet time during the day?
The quietest time is usually 3 to 6 a.m. But that can also be the worst, too. You just never know.