First line of defense 911 operators have to defuse situations with their wits and a switchboard.

April 11, 1996

A 911 DISPATCHER listened last week as Maria D. Rivas argued with her husband Xuang Ky "Tony" Tran. As Mr. Tran loaded and cocked the .357 magnum handgun he had bought that day, the dispatcher tried to persuade Ms. Rivas to leave the room. She tried to keep the woman talking, to buy time, but to no avail. "Stop it! No! No! No!" were the last words the dispatcher heard before two "pops" of gunfire. When police kicked down the door of the couple's second-story condominium in Columbia, Mr. Tran had already shot his wife and himself. The two, both 31, were found dead in their bedroom.

The tragedy provided a vivid reminder of the intense work of a 911 dispatcher. Before police cars or ambulances arrive to handle an emergency, many times a calm voice is already gathering information and assessing the situation. Dispatchers often are put in a position of trying to defuse a standoff armed with only their telephone switchboards, training, gut instinct and assurance that help is on the way.

Typically when 911 operators get attention, it's for a transgression on the job, captured dramatically on audio tape. A Philadelphia case gained national attention in 1994 when a 16-year-old was clubbed to death by a gang while a 911 operator was rude and callous to several frantic callers.

In the Howard case, questions also arose over whether the dispatcher acted properly. Ms. Rivas told the dispatcher about an affair she had and tried to explain why she and her husband were fighting. To keep Ms. Rivas talking, the dispatcher probed deeper. The husband, holding a gun, grew more agitated.

Could the dispatcher have said something else to keep Ms. Rivas on the phone? Perhaps, but it's difficult to know if that would have changed the outcome. "A dispatcher is making in seconds decisions that can be evaluated for years after," said Dr. Jeffrey Mitchell, director of the Critical Stress Team for the county. His unit is part of the Critical Incident Stress Foundation, which debriefs 911 operators and public safety officials after traumatic situations.

The 911 dispatcher in this case was at the communications center answering calls 24 hours later. What happened the previous night was chilling, but dispatchers know it comes with the job. Critics should keep that in mind.

Pub Date: 4/11/96

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