Introduction: At a recent Writer’s Conference, a writing prompt was given to the attendees, labeled TABOO. From that prompt, a list of subjects considered socially taboo was created and all were instructed to spend some time writing about something considered “taboo.” The following story flowed from that prompt. 


“There’s no crying in dispatch,” Sam jokingly reminded Jessica as she pressed the NOT READY button on her console, yanked off her headphones and headed to the supervisor’s station for some tissues while failing miserably at controlling the tears streaming down her face. “Some days,” she said to herself, “this job is just TOO MUCH!” As she rounded the corner and stepped down from the area known as “the loft”, the other dispatchers not taking calls stood and applauded her. All other radio transmissions had been silenced for the past two hours, while every available County, City and Municipal unit responded to a neighborhood held hostage by a man with an AK47. Dispatchers, law enforcement officers, and every other first responder held their collective breaths, as they’d listened to the constant exchange of information and instructions between Incident Command and Jessica, against the backdrop of automatic weapon fire…

It isn’t often that God is spoken of in a 9-1-1 center. In fact, religion is one of the few subjects everyone usually stays away from. Today, though, was a different story. Prayers were sent out to officers over instant messaging screens, letting them know we were with them in spirit and praying they returned safely home to their families tonight. There’s a well-known quote credited to no one in particular from the WWII era that goes something like this: “there are no atheists in fox holes.” Today, that quote came to life for many.

While the neighborhood was being held hostage, the “normal” course of 9-1-1 calls continued to come into the center. Car accidents, kitchen fires, drug overdoses, sexual assaults, stolen property, homes broken into, domestic situations…the never-ending story of man’s inhumanity to man. Not much is considered taboo – or off limits to joke about – in a 9-1-1 center. Sometimes the stress is just so potent that the only way to release it is to find humor from the madness.

But there are a few things dispatchers are strictly prohibited from talking about at work. Political discussions and politics are a no-no. Religion, as I said, is usually a subject no one really wants to get into, but silent prayer happens on a fairly regular basis, and commentary on calls involving children is usually strained, if discussed at all. Those are among the most difficult to hear, along with hearing “officer down”, “shots fired” and “may day” from first responders and fire fighters. There’s no way to minimize situations like these, or to box them up and dissociate from the lasting trauma of the sounds and the voices that replay in your mind, over and over again. On occasion, Critical Incident Stress Debrief sessions are offered, in an attempt to help find some balance for everyone involved.

So, from the list of Taboo topics most normal people refrain from discussing at work, topics and questions you may often hear in dispatch centers, are:

  • Sex: Sex and its many and varying aspects; from gender identity issues, one night stands, gay vs straight vs bi-sexual sex, who’s having sex with whom, who’s not getting any, porn and who thinks it’s right – who thinks it’s all wrong. Sometimes you hear this from the callers, and sometimes you just hear conversations. Anything is fair game.
  • Finances: Income and finances are not only talked about but comparisons are made to make sure things are being distributed right. Credit card information, security codes, numbered passwords, PIN numbers, dates of birth; all are fair game when you’re working on a busy radio console, or are running short-staffed. Online shopping in some 9-1-1 centers is as natural as breathing, but sometimes our co-workers have to help out with the ordering.
  • Weight: From the moment a dispatcher begins their shift, usually the first chat message sent around the room – depending upon the size of the center – is about what to do for lunch. This discussion normally takes about three hours, as people send around suggestions, and votes are tallied. Then decisions have to be made about who will place the order. Restaurants often cringe when they hear who’s calling because they know there’s going to be a separate debit/credit card for each order…and some dispatchers are horrific tippers. As an aside, it usually takes about a half hour after all the food is consumed for the chat message screen to begin to be filled with dispatchers complaining about how much weight they’ve gained since they started this job because the choices of delivery don’t often entail healthy options. But the next shift will be just the same.
  • Age: Age is always an issue. If you’re young (ish) when you start out in this line of work, you resent the “old” people who think the job “was so much better when…” and that “these young people today” just want to come in and change the way things have always been done. If you’re old (er) when you start out, the first day you walk into your new job, most people will roll their eyes behind your back as you walk by and say things like “I wonder how long this one will last”…and then the betting begins.
  • “Are you pregnant?” “Are you infertile?” “Do you have your period?” “Is it hot in here or is it just me?” These are just some of the questions often shouted across the room from one female dispatcher to another, while it’s not uncommon to hear one of the male dispatchers ask why they “can’t just have one tiny estrogen-free corner of the room” to work in.
  • “Who’s your daddy Thursday” is an actual theme in, at least, one district courthouse. No self-respecting, law-abiding citizen would even attempt to do business there on Thursdays, as the business of the day is given over to custody battles and DNA denials and women fighting other women over whose kids’ daddy was her kids’ daddy first.
  • Badge Bunnies: There’s a term used in Law Enforcement that describes people who choose to work as support personnel for first responders because they’re sexually turned on by the uniform: Badge Bunnies. And if you are one, you can be certain everyone else knows it and talks about it. It just goes with the job.
  • Profanity and discrimination: If you walk into a dispatch center unannounced,  you just may notice a dispatcher rolling their eyes and mouthing words at their computer screens. The verbal abuse female dispatchers are required to take from callers is unimaginable. They are called everything thing from “f-ing bitches” to the “c-word” and many have no recourse for making it stop. The male dispatchers don’t seem to have this problem. Bigotry and discrimination are even alive and thriving in the midst of life threatening emergencies.

But the most taboo behavior all good 9-1-1 dispatchers learn never to engage in while working, is allowing their emotions to become entangled with the caller. The voice of calm and reason under all circumstances, they often grow skin so thick that they forget to feel anything at all, even after they go home. This can lead to periods of intense depression and anxiety, as a natural consequence of forcing themselves not to instinctually respond, human-to-human. It’s from those experiences that humor can break the cycle…

So, as Sam reminded Jessica that there’s no crying in dispatch and her co-workers gave her a standing ovation while she blew her nose and dried her tears, she laughed. A big, deep belly laugh. No one died that day. The officers were all going home to their families, and the neighbors were all present and accounted for while one mentally deranged man lived to convince another psychiatrist, a year from now, that he’s no longer a danger to society and will go home to do it all over again.

Dispatchers refer to that as job security.

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