Sometimes field units don't realize dispatchers are with them every second of their shift. That they’re right there—riding alongside them in the front seat of their cruiser. As a dispatcher, the first signal you learn, 10-24, is also the last one you’ll ever want to use: officer down/officer needs assistance. Sitting in a dark room with our headsets on, we’re left with what we hear and our own imaginations. And imagination is oftentimes worse than reality. But sometimes, reality can bite you in the ass.
The Special Rookie
At the Ft. Myers (Fla.) Police Department, rookie officers come in about every four months. You try to help them along as best you can. Some call out traffic stops backward, or can't remember their phonetic alphabet (G=Giraffe, really?). Not to mention that most never answer the first time you call them. Eventually though, they come around and the job gets easier. And every once in a while, a special rookie comes along.
Dan Starks was one of the special ones. He’d always wanted to be a cop. He grew up in the department and started in its Explorer Program as a teenager. He was well-liked, always had a smile on his face and was quick to laugh. When he turned 21, he enrolled in the academy and started the FTO program right after graduation. Soon, it was his first night out on his own.
A Rough Night
I remember every detail like it was yesterday. It was a Friday night in 2003. There wasn’t block training that night, so we had double shifts on the road. We even had the unusual luxury of an extra dispatcher on staff, so one of our dispatchers, Angie, went on a ride-along. Earlier in the night, the on-call traffic homicide investigator (THI) called in to say she was going to be with the Wolf Pack on a DUI check point outside the city and that her department cell phone wasn't working. I could reach her on the countywide radio channel or her personal cell.
I’d just come back from break and was an extra pair of ears, so I put my headset on and listened to primary radio traffic while taking overflow calls. It was little after 2 a.m. and bars were closing. We had a few problem areas, and field units who weren't on active calls usually headed to the local bars as patrons walked to their cars.
I had only been back for about five minutes. One of our female officers tried to check out a male in the parking lot of a bar on Cleveland Avenue. He didn't want to stop his car and gunned his vehicle—nearly running her down. She yelled for assistance, and everyone headed her way. She confirmed that the individual had deliberately tried to run her over with his vehicle, as well as rammed her marked unit while fleeing the scene. The description and direction of travel was repeated several times as she got back to her vehicle and started the pursuit.
Anyone in public safety knows that seconds seem like minutes and minutes seem like hours when you’re chasing someone or waiting for backup.
The suspect led my officers down the side streets, off Cleveland Avenue. I could hear the stress and adrenaline in their voices. We might not all get along at times, but God help the person who tries to hurt one of us. All units not actively involved in the chase moved to the secondary channel to free up the radio for emergency traffic.
The perpetrator crashed his car into a tree head on and fled on foot, turning our vehicle pursuit turned into a foot pursuit. I can't tell you which is easier to monitor. Some officers are better than others at calling out updates. You just keep typing.
As this is happening, someone started screaming for an ambulance on the open mic of a secondary channel: "Starks! Starks! Come on! Wake up!"
The dispatcher quickly called Lee County Control, but was still unsure of what had happened. There had been a crash. Dan's vehicle had flipped when it collided with another unit—they had both attempted to cut off the perpetrator in the vehicle pursuit. They were in a poorly lit residential area and had taken the same shortcut.
At this point, everything started to speed up. Units were in a foot pursuit. We were trying to get a supervisor to the crash when officers on scene told us Lee County Control needed to step it up and they were starting CPR.
It started to get surreal. The sergeant called the radio room and told me to get everybody back in the city now. All of our traffic units were near the Hendry County line, and the quickest way to get them all at once was to call on the countywide channel.
"Ft. Myers to 402," I said.
"Go ahead Ft. Myers."
"I need all city units to return to Ft. Myers 10-18. 10-24! 10-24!"
The lieutenant had just signed off for the night at 2 a.m. I hardly recognized my sergeant’s voice when he told me to notify the lieutenant to come back to the city. I called and informed him of the situation.
He came up on the radio and called the sergeant on a TAC channel for an update and status of the situation. I’ll never forget the sergeant words: "Just get here as soon as you can. It's bad, sir—it’s real bad."
Not Giving Up
This is when reality set in for us. Everyone in the room heard this. Two of the girls broke down and cried. Their voices cracked on the radio. I told myself, “It's a bad crash, but he’ll be OK. We’ve worked bad officer-involved crashes before, and they were all OK.”
We couldn’t stop working: There was still an active foot pursuit. My cell phone beeped; it was the THI that I’d called back to the city. With her siren in the background, she told me, "He's going to be OK. We need you guys right now. Tell them it's going to be OK!"
She’d heard the emotion in the girls’ voices and knew they were on the edge. I look back now and think that she was telling herself this as much as she was telling us. She was the Explorer leader that Dan had grown up training with.
They finally called 10-15 on the foot pursuit. Now, we could concentrate on the crash. This is when I remembered that Angie was out there. Angie and I have worked together for years; she was my shift partner. I couldn’t remember who she said she was riding with. I called her cell. She didn’t answer. I called again, no answer. There was still too much going on to do a roll call.
The lieutenant called over the radio to get an update on who'd been notified. I went down the list, from the chief all the way down to the highway patrol. Sometime during all this mess, I’d taken over primary radio traffic. The other dispatcher couldn’t stop crying.
The rest of the night was a blur. It's funny how some details stand out crystal clear and others fade away. One of our then newer dispatchers came into the radio room from the front desk, she’s from out of the area and didn’t have a personal connection to the officers, and offered to take the channel. I couldn’t get off the channel. I had to finish the call. I remember feeling that if I let her have the channel; everything would fall apart for me. I needed to be there until the end, until the rest of my shift was 10-19 and all accounted for.
Dayshift was called in early. We were relieved around 5:30 a.m. and reported to a debriefing. I remember getting off the elevator on the first floor and looking at all my co-workers. I’d never seen them like this before. No one was talking. I saw one of the shift sergeants walk in with tears streaming down his face.
Dan was pronounced dead at the hospital shortly after arriving there. The officer in the unit he collided with escaped with minor injuries. A couple of Dan’s classmates from the academy, some of them childhood friends, were sitting in roll call, staring at the wall and crying silently. I finally found Angie; she just looked at me, and we exchanged no words as we hugged.
I called my husband, Mike, who was getting ready for work. I drove home, but don’t remember how I got there. Mike was waiting for me in the driveway. He hugged me for a long time. As much as he hated my job, he knew how I felt about my guys. Some of them drive me crazy, but they’re my family, and in the end, I feel responsible for their safety. Intellectually, I know I can’t control what happens to them in the field, but my motherly instincts always kick in when I’m dispatching. Someone from our family was missing, and it was hitting home that we’d never see him again.
After being involved in a critical incident, it’s protocol to take time off, but my agency was small and many of us were affected. I was the only one from my shift that they couldn’t find coverage for. I couldn’t sleep that day and kept replaying the radio traffic in my head. I got up and got ready for work.
As I drove in, I started to get angry. Angry about what happened. Angry about the helplessness I was feeling; that I didn’t bring my entire shift home that morning. Finally, I cried.
Dan’s funeral was the first I attended for a LODD. The whole city stopped. The county took over all our calls, and for the first time in my career, they locked the front doors of the station. There was no radio traffic. I had the honor of giving Dan’s final 10-7 on the day of his funeral.
Dan was 21 years old and had only served two months with us. His previous five years were as an Explorer. Dan was engaged to be married. He’d just been released from his FTO the evening of his death. He was 15 minutes from going off duty at the time of the crash. The perpetrator was charged with his death and sentenced to 21 years and six months in prison. One year for each of Dan’s short life.
I’m now with the Lee County Sheriff’s Office. In addition to my duties, I train new dispatchers. One of the first things I tell my trainees is that no day is typical in law enforcement. You train, and you train some more, and you never lose track of your officers. They might get aggravated with you for checking in on them for the umpteenth time. But just remember, they’re someone’s husband, father, brother, sister, child, mother and/or wife. They have family who love them and expect them home at the end of their shifts. We are their lifeline when all hell breaks loose.
And if you can’t accept that responsibility, then this is not the job for you.
I have a passion for my career and take personal offense to being referred to as “just a dispatcher.” I have no patience for those who come to my profession just because they need a paycheck, are infatuated with the uniform or try to get by taking shortcuts. Dispatching isn’t just a job, it’s a calling. There’s no such thing as a shortcut.
If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from this experience, it’s that you never know what your work day will bring you. You must do everything you can to be prepared. Take your training and continuing education seriously. Be the best you can be because you never know when you’ll hear 10-24, officer down/needs assistance, come over a channel—and that’s when they need you the most.