By Susan Bromley
The phone rings shortly after 7 p.m. on a recent Friday night at the Oakland County Emergency Dispatch Center.
Andrea Almanza answers the call.
“9-1-1, what is your location?”
The woman on the other end gives a Pontiac address and speaks in a rush, nearly incoherently.
“A mother and daughter are fighting?” asks Almanza. “Are there weapons involved?”
No, answers the woman.
“Is there access to weapons?”
“They’re not gonna kill each other I hope!” exclaims the caller, who identifies herself as a neighbor. She then adds there are kitchen knives available and confirms the mother and daughter are physically fighting outside.
Almanza asks the caller if she is in danger, to which the woman responds no and then becomes frustrated at the inquiries.
“Send someone! I can’t answer all these questions!”
Almanza explains help is already on the way and the information will help responding officers. She advises the woman to avoid further contact with the fighting parties and ends the call.
In looking at the history of the address, Almanza notes shots were heard a month ago there and two months ago, a 9-1-1 call was received for an injured person at the home. The 35-year-old Brandon Township single mother of three is in the midst of an extra afternoon shift as an emergency dispatcher with Oakland County, which will be followed by her regular midnight shift. It is going to be a long night, and as always, it will be full of variety.
Just prior to this call, she took one for a road rage incident observed by an uninvolved motorist.
The phone rings again, and this time it is a Clarkston woman who tells Almanza her boyfriend has stolen her pain pills and won’t give them back. Moments later, an Orion Township man reports he is following a suspicious man going door-to-door in the neighborhood. Almanza takes the information and disconnects, learning a short time later the man has a solicitor’s permit to seek donations for the Flint water crisis.
Almanza is approaching her one year-anniversary as an emergency dispatcher with Oakland County. Tonight, she is taking the incoming 9-1-1 calls, the first line of response at the center, along with several other operators, who then send information received to the police and fire radio dispatchers arranged in groups down the length of the room, who correspond directly with responding deputies, firefighters, and medics.
She has received training in all areas of dispatch and prior to arriving at Oakland County, worked with the Oxford Village Police Department Dispatch for a year-and-a-half.
“I needed to find a career, because before dispatch I just had jobs,” said Almanza, who previously had worked for an optical company and done clerical work for car dealerships. “I wanted to use my personality in a way to help people.”
To be a 9-1-1 dispatcher in Michigan, she explains, it is necessary to take an emergency telecommunications class and learn techniques on handling high-stress call volumes, how to calm excited callers, how to deal with the stress that can be involved with such calls and legal ramifications.
“You can be held criminally liable for negligence, it’s intense,” said Almanza. “If I get a call and it sounds like something could be going wrong, and I don’t do anything with it, it’s my fault. You don’t know if someone is going to assume you can do more.”
Case in point is a 9-1-1 text that comes in. There is no message, but a Pontiac address comes up. Almanza sends a text in reply: “We prefer to talk to you. Is it SAFE for me to call you on your cell?”
While waiting for a response, she explains that sometimes people text 9-1-1 instead of calling because a breaking and entering may be in progress and the caller may be hiding from suspects. Other times, dispatchers may receive a text from a person in a domestic violence situation who doesn’t want their assailant to know they have called for help.
Almanza suspects this text was a “butt-dial,” accidentally sent to the emergency number. She waits a few moments, then calls the number and leaves a message on the voicemail. She can’t send an officer to check as the cell phone number doesn’t return to a specific address, but an apartment complex.
There are different protocols for fire, medical, and police calls, too. Because of this training, Alamanza is able to walk callers through delivering a baby, stopping bleeding, and performing CPR.
At 7:17 p.m., another call comes in. A woman gives a Commerce address and tells Almanza her husband is having chest pains and doesn’t think he will make it all the way to the hospital. He has a history of kidney and heart problems and has already taken his nitroglycerin and baby aspirin.
The caller tells Almanza her husband, who suffered an angina attack a month ago, is very gray and clammy and feels nauseous. Almanza instructs the woman to put him on his side in case he vomits. She asks her to make sure she gives the responding medics a list of the man’s medications. The woman thanks her and Almanza ends the call.
“There are days when the phone doesn’t stop ringing,” said Almanza, who takes a call a few moments later about a loose pitbull trying to jump through a screen. “The calls are like a rainbow. Early in the day are the lighter calls, then they get progressively more difficult and weird. On the midnight shift, there are less calls, but when you get a call, it’s always for something in progress.”
When Almanza answers a call, she never knows what will be on the other end. Dispatch receives a lot of trouble calls at businesses, with bars that have disorderly drunks, or stores reporting shoplifters. Medical calls range from heart attacks to headaches and everything in between, including mothers who have children with high fevers and no way to get them to a doctor, so they call for an ambulance.
Sitting kitty-corner from Almanza in the call-taking center is Brook Aranosian, also a Brandon Township resident and employed with Oakland County as a dispatcher for the past year-and-a-half. She was previously an emergency medical technician and while she likes being able to help as a dispatcher, she misses the hands-on aspect of offering medical assistance.
“You do the best you can over the phone,” said Aranosian, who is married to a firefighter and the mother of a 5-month-old daughter. “I think the most intense calls are children calling in domestic situations and suicidal callers. Calls with kids are the worst, especially now. I wish sometimes I were on location when uncooperative callers aren’t willing to render care. If you aren’t going to do CPR, hand the phone to someone who will. Sometimes there will be an overdose and people say they’re not going to do mouth-to-mouth, but you have to to save their life. It’s emotional. When you take 9-1-1 calls, people are experiencing the worst day of their life. There is a lot of emotion in our job.”
Aranosian notes the importance of her colleagues in the dispatch center and with the deputies and firefighter/medics out on the road. They depend on each other.
“First and foremost, we have to keep everyone safe and bring them all home safe,” she said. “I think the most rewarding thing is we are able to help and create better outcomes. You might take a call and a child is choking and you walk them through the Heimlich maneuver and all of a sudden you hear the child crying. I don’t care if they are screaming at that point, a scream is a great thing.”
At 8 p.m., the phones are lighting up all over the call-taking center. Almanza picks up one, while her colleagues are picking up others, all callers reporting the same concern— gunshots in Pontiac, by M-59 and Chippewa, the Marathon gas station, multiple shots.
“I’m in my house,” said one of the callers as Almanza gathers information for responding police officers. “I just hear the shots, you always do over here.”
Not long after, Almanza takes a call from a woman who is two months pregnant and being assaulted by a drunk 31-year-old male in Pontiac who has given her a black eye and pushed her in the shower. Also in the home are children ages 4, 5, 13 and 14. The phone disconnects. Almanza has sent medics, as well as deputies, who must make sure the scene is safe for the medics to help. The woman has told Almanza the man has been beating her ever since he got out of prison.
Almanza acknowledges it is difficult sometimes to let go of each call, but she must. She takes a deep breath and does what she can, and then moves on to the next call.
“You stay focused on the now and not the past— you live in the now,” she said. “When someone calls because there is something wrong with their child, that affects me. After, I get up, go to the bathroom, take a deep breath and start again… One of the hardest parts about this job is you don’t always get to know the endings…You have to have some empathy, if you don’t they wont tell you what is really going on, but at the same time you have to be able to distance yourself in order to stay sane and maintain a healthy outlook on life…The thing that actually makes me the happiest is when they catch the bad guys. Even if it turns out to be their neighbor and completely benign, it makes me happy. I like having answers.”
So do those on the other end of the line. Almanza turns and takes the next call for help.