The voice was frantic, pleading, sounding even more frightened than the usual call to 911.
“Hello, police. Help me, I’m Amanda Berry. I’ve been kidnapped and I’ve been missing for 10 years, and I’m, I’m here, I’m free now.”
But one of the first people Berry reached out to after a decade in captivity didn’t comfort her, didn’t assure her that help was soon on the way, didn’t even keep her on the phone until police arrived.
Instead, the 911 operator for the Cleveland Police Department seemed unaware of the seriousness of the situation, quibbling with Berry over whether she was where she said she was or at the house next door, asking her to name the race and appearance of her captor, and apparently unclear about who was on the other end of the line.
Berry’s is not the kind of call a 911 dispatcher could ever expect to receive. But the woman who did handle it has been under a storm of Internet outrage over her seeming callousness and unprofessionalism. And even EMS dispatch vets, generally reluctant to second-guess the work of one of their own, have piled on.
“One of the things that jumped out was that after the dispatch took the information, she moved on to the next call. I think that realizing the gravity of the situation, the dispatch might have stayed on the call with that person,” said Gary Allen, a dispatcher for 20 years in Berkeley, California, and who now runs a website devoted to the EMS dispatching profession. “You generally want to hold the person on the phone and try to make a personal connection until law enforcement can get there.”
Allen noted that “Cleveland is a busy city and there are probably a lot of telephone lines ringing and other emergencies that might sound similar in their level of seriousness, so you can’t judge that moment.” But, he added, “If the opportunity presents itself that this woman was in a pretty dramatic situation and this was the first help she had talked to in 10 years, the obvious thing to do is to stay on the line with her.”
Many police dispatch units have developed detailed protocols for how to handle nearly every situation. They can be called up at the touch of a button on a computer and typically involve getting the basic information, determining the level of danger the caller is in, and proceeding from there. The dispatcher in Cleveland, it appears, was not following a protocol, if there even was one, but freelancing a response.
After figuring out that Berry was across the street from where she said she was, the dispatcher said: “Stay there with those neighbors. Talk to police when they get there.” When Berry pleaded with her to get the police to come quickly, the dispatcher said one would be sent as soon as one became available, rather than sending one immediately. After trying to find out the name, age, and race of Berry’s captor, the dispatcher seemed in a hurry to get off the phone.
“My feeling was I would have felt obligated to keep her on the line until police could get there,” said Caroline Burau, a 911 dispatch operator in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, and author of Answering 911: Life in the Hot Seat. “She has been missing. I have no idea what shape she is in. I have no idea if she needs an ambulance. Where is the kidnapper? Is she really safe?”
“You can hear the anxiety in her voice,” said Allen. “”She was afraid that her escape was going to be discovered and he might come to take her back. She might have still been in jeopardy. Either way, this is the first help she has called. You want to maintain a human connection and let her know that you will be there for her.”
Dispatchers told The Daily Beast that the biggest hazard of the job is getting a kind of complacency, where dispatchers become numb to the emergencies on the other line, many of which, they say, often aren’t emergencies. Complacency is something that vets say they have to be constantly on guard against, even as they receive countless phone calls from anxious mothers whose children have minor scrapes and bruises.
“Nothing is routine in law enforcement. We call it being mentally prepared for every call,” said Scott Knight, director of international police systems and standards at the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch. “When it becomes routine, it is time to get out of law enforcement.
“You have to be prepared for every call. You never know who is going to be on the other end of the line and you never know what they are going to need.”
Being a dispatcher is not an easy job. Turnover is high and tenures can be short, which may have been why the Cleveland dispatcher didn’t react with alarm when the caller said the name Amanda Berry, which is famous in the area. No call center is overstaffed in these days of fiscal austerity, so the phones ring constantly. Dispatchers have to work many weekends and holidays, and their colleagues become a kind of second family.
“You are a giant rubber band going back and forth. That kind of stress changes a person. You can’t leave it at work,” said Allen.
Still, the job is not without its rewards, said Burau, who took a break from her dispatch job in Minnesota to talk to The Daily Beast.
“I get to help people,” she said. “Even though it is really hard, some days I get people who say thank you, and even if they don’t, I get on the phone and I will really know that I was able to do something for them.”