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“4-8-4, Are You OK?”

 

4-8-4 was usually the car I worked. Your car number identified you and the district you worked. “4-8-4, are you ok?” was the question a 9-1-1 dispatcher would ask if they hadn’t heard from me on a traffic stop. It begins when you call a dispatcher to start your traffic stop.

4-8-4. “Traffic.”

Dispatcher: “4-8-4 go.”

4-8-4: “122 and Stark, with Oregon Adam Boy Lincoln 1-2-3.” (Oregon license plate ABL 123.)

The dispatcher enters the info on one of the multiple computer screens at their desk. It starts a timer on the screen. The timer alerts the dispatcher to call and ask if you’re okay after a few minutes have passed without hearing from you. That dispatcher is your lifeline, a guardian angel. Like a guardian angel, unseen, looking out for you, but heard. When first responders are mentioned sometimes we forget to remember that the 9-1-1 dispatcher is the first responder when they take a call from someone who needs help.

There was a recent article in the Oregonian about 9-1-1 dispatchers in Umatilla County. Umatilla County encompasses 3,231 square miles.

Caitlin Slette remembers one of her first calls as an emergency dispatcher.

“On my second or third day working on my own, I got a call from someone way out in the county,” she said. “(He) said there was someone at his door who thought his ear had gotten shot off. He kept saying, ‘If he comes in, I’m going to shoot him.'”

Slette was able to keep the caller on the phone, and get emergency services to the scene before he acted on his words.

This baptism-by-fire is not abnormal for dispatchers — the first point of contact when someone calls 911. Inside the Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office in Pendleton, the team of 18 dispatchers field calls from 25 different law enforcement and emergency agencies, directing police officers, fire and ambulance services to the places where callers need help. But new dispatchers like Slette, who has worked in the job for nearly a year, go through months of training before they can field emergency calls. They learn the basics — finding out a person’s location, the reason for the call, and if there are any weapons — and the language of law enforcement. Slette said she trained for about three months before being able to take emergency calls on her own.

Each dispatcher sits at a desk with seven screens: two connected to the phone lines, three where they enter and access information from various databases, and two that access the radio system. There are usually five or six working at a time, with each person managing a different agency. One person will take care of all emergency and fire agencies, and one dispatcher will be assigned to each police agency. As they receive information about a call, they enter it into the system, where the other dispatchers can view it.

Communications Sergeant Karen Primmer said one of the toughest parts of the job is the lack of closure — once law enforcement takes over, dispatchers are no longer a part of the call, and don’t know whether something was resolved.

“We sometimes get left out of that conclusion piece,” she said. “We want to hear the rest of the story.”

One night I was working with a friend from college. He was a traffic officer, a 300 car. He said we should pay a visit to radio. Radio was the Bureau of Emergency Communications. BOEC at that time was located inside a cold-war bunker that had been hollowed out of Kelly Butte, an extinct volcanic plug located within the city limits of Portland.

He introduced me by name to one the dispatchers and as soon as I said, “It’s nice to meet you,” she said “Oh, you’re 4-8-4. Hey, everyone, meet 4-8-4.” Greetings were exchanged, but I knew I was more than a number to everyone I met that night. You are too when you call 9-1-1.

There are 46 comments.

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  1. Member

    I don’t remember Kelly Butte. I do remember Rocky Butte. I played Little League in the Rocky Butte Little League.

    • #1
    • April 14, 2018 at 2:03 pm
    • 2 likes
  2. Member
    Doug Watt Post author

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    I don’t remember Kelly Butte. I do remember Rocky Butte. I played Little League in the Rocky Butte Little League.

    Kelly Butte was about 6 miles south of Rocky Butte, and to the east of Mt. Tabor.

     

    • #2
    • April 14, 2018 at 2:08 pm
    • 2 likes
  3. Member

    I was young. We hung out between 102nd and 122nd.

    • #3
    • April 14, 2018 at 2:10 pm
    • 2 likes
  4. Member
    Doug Watt Post author

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    I was young. We hung out between 102nd and 122nd.

    Yep, Northeast Portland.

     

    • #4
    • April 14, 2018 at 2:11 pm
    • 2 likes
  5. Member

    I love all your insider information. Have you seen the new TV series 911? I love that show, so if it’s hokey or inaccurate, don’t tell me haha.

    • #5
    • April 14, 2018 at 2:21 pm
    • 8 likes
  6. Member

    My father was sort of a utility player on his police force. As my mother would say, “If I read in the paper that there was a problem somewhere in the police department, I always knew that he would soon be transferred into that area to clean things up.” My father wound up in all sorts of areas. He was (and is) a very systematic man with a good mind. He would go into an area and fix the problems, then transfer on to the next trouble spot. I know he was in charge of training at least twice. He was also put in charge of the radio room for awhile. It may have had a more formal name, such as Emergency Dispatch something-or-other, but everyone called it the radio room. It was down in a basement of the municipal building, beneath the police department and main fire station. He would sometimes stop in while he was off-duty, just to check on things. If I happened to be with him, I would get to tag along. This was probably in the late 70’s, so they didn’t have all the computers and monitors, but there was a wide console desk with some impressive equipment and three or four operators and the supervisor on duty.

    My eldest brother later worked there and became a supervisor (civilian) when he had come back to Joliet in the mid-80’s and into the 90’s when he was working on getting his engineering degree. His most interesting story from the period was when there was a very large tornado in ’90 or ’91. Besides the main fire station above them, there were several outlying fire stations. They got the call from one of these that the tornado was heading right for them. The transmission was something like, “The tornado is heading right for us, we’re going to…” And then the transmission cut out. They later found that the firemen were fine. (Many other people were not fine in an apartment complex the tornado touched down in just before that.) Tornadoes jump. This one had jumped over the fire station, but had managed to take out their communications just before doing so.

    • #6
    • April 14, 2018 at 2:24 pm
    • 11 likes
  7. Member

    Doug Watt (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    I was young. We hung out between 102nd and 122nd.

    Yep, Northeast Portland.

    Parkrose, to be exact.

    • #7
    • April 14, 2018 at 2:28 pm
    • 3 likes
  8. Coolidge

    Doug, on the true crime shows I watch on TV, I often hear absolutely dreadful 911 operators. Really. Some confuse the stressed caller. Their questions are sometimes awful. And they occasionally seem to forget to say what the caller calls in for: “We’re sending someone out immediately.”

    I know nothing about the inside life of operators, so I could very well be off the track here. Outsiders often are.

    Is there any validity to my criticisms? I’d like to hear from a real cop.

    Kent

    • #8
    • April 14, 2018 at 2:30 pm
    • 3 likes
  9. Member
    Doug Watt Post author

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    I love all your insider information. Have you seen the new TV series 911? I love that show, so if it’s hokey or inaccurate, don’t tell me haha.

    I haven’t seen it, but I do understand that Hollywood and television has to present a story that appeals to viewers. The documentary Flint Town, available on Netflix is a pretty good look at policing in a down and out city. Portland was certainly not Flint Town, but there were areas in Portland that were rough.

    Policing was an interesting job, but being a husband, father, and now a grandfather is just as interesting.

    I recommend Flint Town, but it is difficult to watch, and it is graphic. The problem is that the people who should watch it, government officials, will not watch it.

    • #9
    • April 14, 2018 at 2:41 pm
    • 5 likes
  10. Coolidge

    Doug, I’m terribly fond of the TV show “Forensic Files.” Have you ever watched the show? I think it’s been on for a number of years, but I have only recently discovered it. Outside of the Blazer games, it’s the only show I watch regularly, 

    Kent

    • #10
    • April 14, 2018 at 2:56 pm
    • 3 likes
  11. Member
    Doug Watt Post author

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Doug, on the true crime shows I watch on TV, I often hear absolutely dreadful 911 operators. Really. Some confuse the stressed caller. Their questions are sometimes awful. And they occasionally seem to forget to say what the caller calls in for: “We’re sending someone out immediately.”

    I know nothing about the inside life of operators, so I could very well be off the track here. Outsiders often are.

    Is there any validity to my criticisms? I’d like to hear from a real cop.

    Kent

    What the caller doesn’t realize is that the info is being put into the system as the dispatcher is talking to them, so the dispatching of officers, or fire and medical is happening at that moment. The dispatcher is trying to get more info, for example, a description, exactly where the incident is. Is it an incident that night be dangerous for firefighters, and medical until police intervene. They are also dispatching that info in real time for responders. They are trying to keep people on the line to get as much info as they can for responders.

     

    • #11
    • April 14, 2018 at 2:56 pm
    • 7 likes
  12. Coolidge

    Doug Watt (View Comment):

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Doug, on the true crime shows I watch on TV, I often hear absolutely dreadful 911 operators. Really. Some confuse the stressed caller. Their questions are sometimes awful. And they occasionally seem to forget to say what the caller calls in for: “We’re sending someone out immediately.”

    I know nothing about the inside life of operators, so I could very well be off the track here. Outsiders often are.

    Is there any validity to my criticisms? I’d like to hear from a real cop.

    Kent

    What the caller doesn’t realize is that the info is being put into the system as the dispatcher is talking to them, so the dispatching of officers, or fire and medical is happening at that moment. The dispatcher is trying to get more info, for example, a description, exactly where the incident is. Is it an incident that night be dangerous for firefighters, and medical until police intervene. They are also dispatching that info in real time for responders. They are trying to keep people on the line to get as much info as they can for responders.

    Thanks, Doug. That’s what I thought was happening. I think the 911 operator sometimes fails to tell the caller that’s what is happening. A dialogue I heard the other day went something like this:

    Caller, screaming: He’s dead! He’s dead!

    911 Operator: Can he speak?

    Kent

    • #12
    • April 14, 2018 at 3:04 pm
    • 1 like
  13. Member
    Doug Watt Post author

    Multiple comment, deleted

    • #13
    • April 14, 2018 at 3:05 pm
    • Like
  14. Member

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Caller, screaming: He’s dead! He’s dead!

    911 Operator: Can he speak?

    That’s better than asking, “Are you sure he’s dead?”

    “Hold on,” says the caller. There is a loud *BANG* in the background.

    “Yep, now I’m sure he’s dead…”

    • #14
    • April 14, 2018 at 3:07 pm
    • 11 likes
  15. Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Caller, screaming: He’s dead! He’s dead!

    911 Operator: Can he speak?

    That’s better than asking, “Are you sure he’s dead?”

    “Hold on,” says the caller. There is a loud *BANG* in the background.

    “Yep, now I’m sure he’s dead…”

    That’s so old you ought to be embarrassed.

    • #15
    • April 14, 2018 at 3:09 pm
    • 8 likes
  16. Member
    Doug Watt Post author

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Doug Watt (View Comment):

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Doug, on the true crime shows I watch on TV, I often hear absolutely dreadful 911 operators. Really. Some confuse the stressed caller. Their questions are sometimes awful. And they occasionally seem to forget to say what the caller calls in for: “We’re sending someone out immediately.”

    I know nothing about the inside life of operators, so I could very well be off the track here. Outsiders often are.

    Is there any validity to my criticisms? I’d like to hear from a real cop.

    Kent

    What the caller doesn’t realize is that the info is being put into the system as the dispatcher is talking to them, so the dispatching of officers, or fire and medical is happening at that moment. The dispatcher is trying to get more info, for example, a description, exactly where the incident is. Is it an incident that night be dangerous for firefighters, and medical until police intervene. They are also dispatching that info in real time for responders. They are trying to keep people on the line to get as much info as they can for responders.

    Thanks, Doug. That’s what I thought was happening. I think the 911 operator sometimes fails to tell the caller that’s what is happening. A dialogue I heard the other day went something like this:

    Caller, screaming: He’s dead! He’s dead!

    911 Operator: Can he speak?

    Kent

    In this type of call the dispatcher isn’t assuming the victim is dead. If there is a chance that CPR is called for then the dispatcher is asking for more info.

     

    • #16
    • April 14, 2018 at 3:11 pm
    • 5 likes
  17. Coolidge

    Doug Watt (View Comment):

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Doug Watt (View Comment):

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Doug, on the true crime shows I watch on TV, I often hear absolutely dreadful 911 operators. Really. Some confuse the stressed caller. Their questions are sometimes awful. And they occasionally seem to forget to say what the caller calls in for: “We’re sending someone out immediately.”

    I know nothing about the inside life of operators, so I could very well be off the track here. Outsiders often are.

    Is there any validity to my criticisms? I’d like to hear from a real cop.

    Kent

    What the caller doesn’t realize is that the info is being put into the system as the dispatcher is talking to them, so the dispatching of officers, or fire and medical is happening at that moment. The dispatcher is trying to get more info, for example, a description, exactly where the incident is. Is it an incident that night be dangerous for firefighters, and medical until police intervene. They are also dispatching that info in real time for responders. They are trying to keep people on the line to get as much info as they can for responders.

    Thanks, Doug. That’s what I thought was happening. I think the 911 operator sometimes fails to tell the caller that’s what is happening. A dialogue I heard the other day went something like this:

    Caller, screaming: He’s dead! He’s dead!

    911 Operator: Can he speak?

    Kent

    In this type of call the dispatcher isn’t assuming the victim is dead. If there is a chance that CPR is called for then the dispatcher is asking for more info.

    But is asking if he can speak the best way to get that info?

    Kent

    • #17
    • April 14, 2018 at 3:13 pm
    • Like
  18. Member
    Doug Watt Post author

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Doug Watt (View Comment):

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Doug Watt (View Comment):

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Doug, on the true crime shows I watch on TV, I often hear absolutely dreadful 911 operators. Really. Some confuse the stressed caller. Their questions are sometimes awful. And they occasionally seem to forget to say what the caller calls in for: “We’re sending someone out immediately.”

    I know nothing about the inside life of operators, so I could very well be off the track here. Outsiders often are.

    Is there any validity to my criticisms? I’d like to hear from a real cop.

    Kent

    What the caller doesn’t realize is that the info is being put into the system as the dispatcher is talking to them, so the dispatching of officers, or fire and medical is happening at that moment. The dispatcher is trying to get more info, for example, a description, exactly where the incident is. Is it an incident that night be dangerous for firefighters, and medical until police intervene. They are also dispatching that info in real time for responders. They are trying to keep people on the line to get as much info as they can for responders.

    Thanks, Doug. That’s what I thought was happening. I think the 911 operator sometimes fails to tell the caller that’s what is happening. A dialogue I heard the other day went something like this:

    Caller, screaming: He’s dead! He’s dead!

    911 Operator: Can he speak?

    Kent

    In this type of call the dispatcher isn’t assuming the victim is dead. If there is a chance that CPR is called for then the dispatcher is asking for more info.

    But is asking if he can speak the best way to get that info?

    Kent

    It all depends upon how stressed the caller is.

     

    • #18
    • April 14, 2018 at 3:15 pm
    • 4 likes
  19. Member

    Randy Webster (View Comment):
    That’s so old you ought to be embarrassed.

    But I’m not. Eventually, everyone who knows it will die off, and I’ll have a fresh audience again.

    • #19
    • April 14, 2018 at 3:34 pm
    • 12 likes
  20. Thatcher

    Arahant (View Comment):

    My father was sort of a utility player on his police force. As my mother would say, “If I read in the paper that there was a problem somewhere in the police department, I always knew that he would soon be transferred into that area to clean things up.” My father wound up in all sorts of areas. He was (and is) a very systematic man with a good mind. He would go into an area and fix the problems, then transfer on to the next trouble spot. I know he was in charge of training at least twice. He was also put in charge of the radio room for awhile. It may have had a more formal name, such as Emergency Dispatch something-or-other, but everyone called it the radio room. It was down in a basement of the municipal building, beneath the police department and main fire station. He would sometimes stop in while he was off-duty, just to check on things. If I happened to be with him, I would get to tag along. This was probably in the late 70’s, so they didn’t have all the computers and monitors, but there was a wide console desk with some impressive equipment and three or four operators and the supervisor on duty.

    My eldest brother later worked there and became a supervisor (civilian) when he had come back to Joliet in the mid-80’s and into the 90’s when he was working on getting his engineering degree. His most interesting story from the period was when there was a very large tornado in ’90 or ’91. Besides the main fire station above them, there were several outlying fire stations. They got the call from one of these that the tornado was heading right for them. The transmission was something like, “The tornado is heading right for us, we’re going to…” And then the transmission cut out. They later found that the firemen were fine. (Many other people were not fine in an apartment complex the tornado touched down in just before that.) Tornadoes jump. This one had jumped over the fire station, but had managed to take out their communications just before doing so.

    1990. 

    • #20
    • April 14, 2018 at 4:11 pm
    • 4 likes
  21. Member

    My favorite calls are the ones where the spouse is the murderer and they call 911 with the fake hyperventilating and sobbing.

    • #21
    • April 14, 2018 at 4:11 pm
    • 7 likes
  22. Thatcher

    This is the body cam video of the You Tube shooter Nasim Aghdam, a few hours before her attack on You Tube in Mountain View, CA a couple of weeks ago. She was sleeping in her car in a Walmart parking lot. I found it fascinating. The Police dispatcher is really good, and the communications systems are excellent. The Mountain View police were very professional, and intent on doing the right thing. They let her go. The irony is that it was the right thing to do. Even though we who watch it now know what she did next. Despite the failure to stop her — which may have been possible if the police had violated her rights, it is strangely reassuring. You Tube Shooter Police body cam

    • #22
    • April 14, 2018 at 4:18 pm
    • 6 likes
  23. Member

    Many years ago when I ran a trauma center in Orange County , my son who was about 10, loved to go with me to the hospital (I used to take them all but he was the most enthusiastic) and he would hang around the radio room, listening to the calls. Once a nursing supervisor complained that he was too young to be there but I pointed out he was not in the way and this was the only way my children would ever get to see what I did. She backed off and we later became good friends.

    My son will be 50 next year and has spent the last 25 years as a paramedic firefighter.

    • #23
    • April 14, 2018 at 4:20 pm
    • 11 likes
  24. Member

    Thanks for this Doug. My daughter is a telecommunicator for Ramsey County (St. Paul). For everyone else, some jurisdictions divide the job into two roles, a telecommunicator who takes 9-11 calls and a dispatcher who manages prioritization and dispatch of appropriate responders. Like retail and other jobs that bring you into frequent contact with the general public, in this job you quickly learn that a fair number of our fellow citizens are morons. In a relatively short time on the job she has had people call because their neighbor’s cat was in their yard (he’ll leave in time on his own, ma’am), their cat was up a tree (was it wearing a leash? no? it’ll come down on it’s own when it’s ready), my daughter won’t behave (what do you say to that?), my car was stolen (why did you leave the keys in it/no it was repossessed/no it was towed). Besides the idiots, a large percentage of the rest of the people you are talking to are talking to you on the worst day of their life – in that same short time she has had to deal with heroin overdoses (her first day), suicide attempts, domestic violence. It’s not a job I could do – my ability to tolerate idiots is just not sufficiently great.

    Sometimes they get interesting calls – Today she got a call from a little girl who wanted to know if the clowns she and her mom had seen yesterday were bad people.

    This last week was National Telecommunicator’s Week.

    • #24
    • April 14, 2018 at 6:25 pm
    • 10 likes
  25. Member

    Whistle Pig (View Comment):
    Sometimes they get interesting calls – Today she got a call from a little girl who wanted to know if the clowns she and her mom had seen yesterday were bad people.

    See something, say something.

    • #25
    • April 14, 2018 at 9:25 pm
    • 7 likes
  26. Coolidge

    Why do the police use a different phonetic alphabet (able boy lincoln) rather than alfa bravo lima like the military? 

    • #26
    • April 14, 2018 at 9:27 pm
    • 2 likes
  27. Member

    I went through the Portland Metropolitan Police Academy in 1971 at Kelly Butte. A few years later, the facility was reconfigured as the combined dispatch center for Portland PB and Multnomah County SO, and I worked there for a year during the transition from police officer to non sworn dispatchers. That was before computer assisted dispatching. The only computer we had was to access warrants, criminal records and DMV records. Fire dispatch was added later.

    • #27
    • April 14, 2018 at 9:28 pm
    • 3 likes
  28. Member

    Mister Dog (View Comment):

    Why do the police use a different phonetic alphabet (able boy lincoln) rather than alfa bravo lima like the military?

    History is the short answer.

    • #28
    • April 14, 2018 at 9:44 pm
    • 3 likes
  29. Thatcher

    Wonderful, great to read you again, friend! In the late ‘80s-mid 90s, my middle sister was a supervisor/trainer/dispatcher for a county-wide 911 system (before it transitioned to a totally uniformed staff) in her local area. What an eye~opener for her chaplain sister: r-e-s-p-e-c-t for certain.

    • #29
    • April 14, 2018 at 10:21 pm
    • 5 likes
  30. Member
    Doug Watt Post author

    Al French (View Comment):

    I went through the Portland Metropolitan Police Academy in 1971 at Kelly Butte. A few years later, the facility was reconfigured as the combined dispatch center for Portland PB and Multnomah County SO, and I worked there for a year during the transition from police officer to non sworn dispatchers. That was before computer assisted dispatching. The only computer we had was to access warrants, criminal records and DMV records. Fire dispatch was added later.

    A new dispatch center was built that is located on the south side of Kelly Butte. The dispatch center on the butte was closed after I left PPB. The new facility has windows, the old facility had a mural painted across the north wall, there were no windows. The new facility is across the street from Kelly Butte.

    • #30
    • April 14, 2018 at 10:56 pm
    • 4 likes
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