Hopper, who grew up in Weatherford, became one of his hometown’s 911 call operators right out of high school. In 1997 he joined the Austin Police Department, where—except for a hiatus to get his college degree—he has worked in the emergency communications division for seven years.
When you call 911, the most important thing I need to know is where you’re at. Then I can have help on the way no matter what. Our technology can tell us your address if you’re calling from a land line, but most people use cell phones. After that, I need to know what’s going on: Is there an assailant or a suspect, are there weapons, has anyone been drinking or doing drugs? I want information about the person causing problems: his ethnicity, how old he looks, how tall he is, the color of his shirt, the color of his pants. If he has just robbed a bank, say, or assaulted or murdered someone, then I especially want every detail. What color is his hair? Is it short? Curly? Does he wear glasses? Have scars? Tattoos?
A lot of people don’t get why we ask the questions we do. For example, if there is a wreck, why we want to know what color the cars are. The caller will say, “Well, they’re the only two cars right now on Forty-fifth Street in an accident.” They don’t understand that two blocks away there may be another accident with two other vehicles. Some callers get very angry, but these questions are to help them. They also help determine what kind of priority the call is. Does anyone need an ambulance? Are they blocking traffic? Will they need a tow truck? The more experience you have as an operator, the shorter your calls are, because you can get all that information quickly. Mine generally last one to two minutes.
Nobody calls 911 because something good is going on. You need patience and confidence to take these calls. Knowledge of the city is important too. If somebody called right now, screaming, and he said, “Mason Manor,” I’d know that that’s the Mason Manor Apartments, at 1137 Gunter. You also need a good ear, so you can decipher what someone is saying and listen to what’s going on in the background.
We have ten to twelve operators taking calls, depending on the time of day, in eight-hour shifts. We enter the calls into a computer system, which alerts the dispatchers and police officers in different sectors of the city. The majority of our calls have to do with domestic disturbances; we take those seriously because they often result in injuries and, a lot of times, homicides. Nights and weekends are usually busier—that’s when people start drinking—but, really, it’s unpredictable. Some days your line gets calls every two minutes, some days it’ll slow down to every five. There’s a high turnover rate in this job, because you’re not just listening to people in distress but you’re also multitasking: analyzing the situation, making fast decisions about how to relay information. Just in the past year there have been more than a dozen operators hired who are no longer here.
I started training other 911 operators in 1999, and the first thing I teach is that the scariest thing is not being able to understand the caller, not because of a language barrier but because of circumstance—lots of screaming or they’re being assaulted or they can’t communicate with you for some reason—and not being able to figure out where they are. I can’t think of an instance when I haven’t been able to get someone help, but just the thought is terrifying.
One call that sticks in my mind is from when I was working for the Weatherford Police Department. This lady was slurring when she talked, and she was trying to give me her address, but I just couldn’t understand her. Finally I asked her if she could spell the name of the street slowly. One letter at a time, she spelled it out, and I was able to figure out the address and send police. I kept her on the line until they got there. She had been sexually assaulted by a man who took a bottle of whiskey, poured it down her throat, and attacked her. Fortunately he didn’t kill her. It was really difficult to try to help somebody who was impaired like that and had had something tragic happen to them.
When I keep a person on the line, I reassure him or her that help is on the way, and I’ll try to be calming. If a caller thinks someone is breaking into his home, for example, and is locked away in his bathroom or closet, I’ll ask, “Are you doing okay?” “Did you hear anything else?” A lot of times I can hear the officers knock on the door when they arrive, and I’ll say, “You don’t have to leave the closet if you’re not comfortable. If you are, I’ll stay on the phone until you make contact with the officers.”
We have four types of calls: hotshot and priority one, two, and three calls. Hotshot calls are any disturbances that are in progress and include violence, weapons, injury, or even potential violence—like a domestic dispute, a burglary, a serious car crash, a bomb threat. Once we get an address, we’ll have police officers on the way in fifteen, twenty seconds. If you see an officer with his lights and siren on, going really fast, that’s probably because one of us put in a hotshot call. Priority one calls are incidents that aren’t in progress or don’t have an immediate threat—say, for example, a robbery has occurred but the suspect has just left the scene. And then after that, you get calls where there’s no threat or fighting, which are priority two and three calls. Priority three would be a robbery that happened an hour or even thirty minutes ago.
We have interesting, funny calls all the time too. We’ll hear from the friendliest people with the most bizarre ideas or situations. When you get up and go to work in the morning, you don’t think you’re going to get a call about someone with a chicken chained to a tree in their front yard. One minute you might be taking a 911 call about someone who’s been shot, and the next minute you’re taking a call about someone who has had a turtle out on their balcony for too long without water. Recently I was talking to a pretty reasonable caller who was reporting some criminal trespassing, and at the end, he says, “Okay, love ya, bye.” You just never know.