Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Re-Opening Pandora's Box - Again

It was with some dismay this morning that while surfing through news stories on the Internet that I came across the following: More 9/11 Emergency Calls to Be Released. As an Emergency Medical Dispatcher and someone who not only listens to but talks on 911 for a living, I see no good reason for the release of these tapes unless you're trying to prevent a wound from healing by constantly picking off the scab.

I honestly don't know why the general public wants to listen to these tapes unless it's simply morbid curiosity. What good is it going to do anyone? It's merely going to send those people who were on the other end of the phone lines right back down into the pit of depression which they probably haven't managed to climb all the way out of yet anyway.

Have you ever listened to the sounds of someone dying on the other end of a phone line and known that there was not a damned thing that you could do about it? I have and I can tell you that it's a horrible, horrible thing. I have been on the listening end of a man being shot to death in a local bar, I have been on the listening end of a young woman taking her last gasp of breath during a fatal asthma attack, and I was sitting on the other side of the radio console when four children died in the Lake Street fire in Norwich in November of 2001. Is there anyone out there who thinks that I just ended my shift and went home totally oblivious to those things? No - I did not.

It's my job as an emergency services operator and dispatcher to gather the information from the caller and pass it on to the responding units in a calm and professional manner but that doesn't mean my care and concern ends when I hang up the phone. It doesn't end when I broadcast that information over the radio. And it doesn't end when I clock out at the end of my shift. Those voices go home with me and sometimes they keep me awake at night.

If that's how I feel over the "small" losses that I deal with, how do you think it affects my brethren dispatchers down in New York City? I can't even imagine being behind their consoles on 9/11; I can't even imagine being behind their consoles now almost five years later. And now some of them to get to relive that tragic day all over again with the release of more tapes. Why? Again I ask - what good does it do? Is it going to bring anyone back? Is it going to make anyone feel any better? Are we supposed to believe that it's not going to induce more finger-pointing?

The plain and simple truth is that NO ONE in New York City was prepared for what happened that day - NO ONE. And how could they have been? Who sits around and comes up with the unthinkable scenario of flying not one but two planes into the two tallest buildings in the City and then tries to figure out how best to handle that? There is no doubt in my mind that NYC probably has one of the finest Disaster Preparedness Plans in place than any city anywhere in the world but how do you plan for the unthinkable, for the unimaginable? You can't.

People in New York did the best they could that day - the firefighters, the police officers, the 911 operators and dispatchers - all of them. I doubt that there is anyone anywhere that could have performed better under the circumstances than they did. The rest of the world relived that horror through television and radio but there's no comparison to the people who lived it right there in New York in real-time.

I asked Andrew Duval, a paramedic at American who has also been a dispatcher at Quinebaug Valley Emergency Commucations for almost ten years, what he thought of the release of more tapes and he told me, "I understand and respect the country's "right to know" about everything that occurred on that day but some things shouldn't be re-hashed. Every time I see pictures or footage of September 11, 2001 I begin to well up and get a lump in my throat. I remember thinking about all of the Emergency Services workers entering the Towers and the thousands of innocent employees just doing their jobs when the planes hit the Towers. Releasing the 911 tapes of some poor completely helpless Dispatcher doing his/her job really isn't going to do anything but confirm what we already know. There is NO Fire or Police Department in the world capable of handling what went on that day. Regardless of who they are."

As for that day, Andrew said, "I was dispatching that night at American. I was the one that offically dispatched the call for our three ambulances to go and stand-by. QVEC was forming a list of personnel and equipment ready to be deployed in conjunction with the CT Fire Academy. They were, at one point, in desperate need of Dispatchers both for Ground Zero and for the rest of the City. I had already packed a "go bag" and was waiting for a phone call. Never happened and looking back I am kinda glad I didn't go. The stories I am hearing and reading, I don't think I could have come back and worked in EMS again."

While working across the street at Norwich PD that night, I remember thinking that as hard as my job was sometimes, it couldn't possibly compare to what the dispatchers in New York City, Washington DC, and a small town in Pennsylvania were going through. And I'm sure they will continue to go through it for the rest of their lives. Over and over and over again. I'm sure they're hard enough on themselves, maybe the rest of the country could give them a break and not be so hell-bent on releasing tapes that will do no good to anyone who either lived or died on that most horrific of days.


  1. It is very interesting to hear your perspective as a dispatcher. I, too, am unable to listen to any released tapes, just like I couldn't watch the movies United 93 or World Trade Center. No way, no how. But healing--personally and collectively--comes in all shapes and sizes, and others may find a lot of value in what's presented on those audio tapes or in film. I will be interested to read the other comments on this issue.

  2. I agree with you Linda. Those who want so badly to hear these tapes are the same people who will comlpain about them being "too graphic". As if it were some sort of entertainment instead of these people begging to be saved or looking for an ear to listen to their last words. God bless you guys for doing what you do, I would never be able to. We can only sit back as a nations wounds are re-opened, not to mention the families and co-workers. God help them.

  3. Anonymous7:55 AM EDT

    While i agree with you Linda, as far as a dispatchers point of view, and the fact that it will re-hash the "what if we had done things differently?" debate, I also can see wanting to hear the tapes if I was a family member of a caller. Many family members don't know how their loved ones died and i know some people think ignorance is bliss, but I think I am the type of person that even if it was hard to hear or "graphic" I would get more closure in hearing my loved ones final moments. Some people may not understand that, but it depends on how you greive and what you need to move on. Everyone has a different and personal way in dealing with tragedy and I hope if the tapes have to be released they will bring some people peace.

  4. I couldn't have ever done what you do. Put me there in the action okay, because I will have some control. Very well done and I concur. :)

  5. I watched the Kevin Cosgrove video this weekend. I watch the videos because I want to understand. It's probably bad for me...I have trouble putting the memories away once I let them loose.

    But I listened to the dispatcher do her best to remain calm, when she had to know that the guy on the 105th floor was going to die because he was above the fires and no one was going to be able to get to him.

    I hope I could have done the same. I have so much respect for those who can.


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