When Caroline Burau became tired of chasing people around for the scoop as a reporter for the White Bear Press, she transitioned to a new role: an emergency dispatcher. She remembers being terrified taking her first call back in 2002: theft from a car. She also remembers the first call that kept her up at night: a suicide.
Since those first jittery, stress-inducing calls, Burau has dispatched for law enforcement (including her hometown police department, White Bear Lake Police Department) and for private ambulance companies, where she was the only connection to help a stranger on the other end of the telephone. Last September, Minnesota Historical Society Press released Burau’s second memoir, Tell Me Exactly What Happened: Dispatches From 911, which chronicles some of her experiences from the last 10 years of her emergency dispatching; her first memoir, Answering 911: Life in the Hot Seat, was published in 2006 and covered her times as a rookie dispatcher.
From guiding a caller to administer CPR to helping a mother give birth to the more mundane, Burau, who has always found respite in the written word, gives a glimpse into the world of emergency dispatchers. She also wrote the book for the chance to explain why she left the field in 2014.
“It’s riveting, it’s funny, it’s important, and it makes you think about your own relationship with your work,” says Ann Regan, editor-in-chief for the Minnesota Historical Society Press, about Burau’s new book. “She’s not exploiting the emergencies she has witnessed—far from it. She’s helping the public understand a crucial part of what keeps communities safe.”
“I thought White Bear was so idyllic and nothing bad ever happened in White Bear,” Burau says. “Of course when you start taking 911 calls, you realize there’s that seedy underbelly, which is really not all that seedy, but when that’s all you hear, you start to think that’s all there is.” Burau started dispatching for White Bear in 2005, when the police department had a one-person dispatch center, meaning she was the sole dispatcher on her shifts.
Among many things, being a dispatcher is unpredictable, and Burau doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges found therein. “What dispatchers will joke about is feast or famine,” Burau says. “You either get 16 things happening at once, or nothing is happening and you are struggling to stay awake.” Burau would use books, magazines, yoga poses, her laptop, anything to help stay awake on slower night shifts.
Some of the difficult emergencies are impossible to shake off after the caller disconnects. Burau has always been a proponent of self-care methods like yoga and therapy to help lift the weight from the more traumatic calls. And she hopes the industry will begin to encourage dispatchers to seek help when they need it.
Today, Burau works as a technical writer. She left the emergency-dispatching world two years ago because she felt she had burned out. It wasn’t only the long hours and frequent night shifts that made her ready to leave; it was the fear of complacency on the job.
Even after the burnout, Burau still remembers the rewarding aspects: “I loved the call-taking because even if you didn’t ‘save a life’ or make a huge difference, you could still make a difference just in how you talk to that person. If you could be comforting or kind, it was a real easy way to have a rewarding day.”