Angel of the Air
Before I was hired as a Minneapolis firefighter, I worked as a 911 call
taker and as an ambulance dispatcher. A small percentage of people
make sitting in dispatch a life-long career. The revolving door in and
out of those positions is a fast one, for a variety of reasons. Some
(like me) are hoping that the experience will make them more
employable for police and fire jobs. We leave when we finally secure
our dream job; but most leave because it’s incredibly stressful. Of all
of the jobs that I’ve worked over the course of my life—including
firefighting— 911 and ambulance dispatch were the most stressful.
I will never forget the first call I took as an ambulance
dispatcher. It was 0600, the start of my very first shift. The mom on
the other end of the phone was upset but still composed enough to
relay clearly that her five-year-old daughter had passed out on the
toilet. My fresh EMT-D skills kicked in immediately and I went down
the list of questions to ask. Is she breathing? Does she have a pulse?
Don’t worry, ma’am, the ambulance is on the way. I felt so incredibly
helpless on that call. I wanted to swoop in and do a patient
assessment like I had learned in EMT class, but all I could do is keep
this mom calm while she held her still-breathing daughter on her lap.
While the ambulance screamed towards them, I did a virtual patient
assessment, keeping her on speaker phone so my colleague (who
happened to be one of those who had made this a life-long career,
and had been in the seat for over 20 years), could listen in and make
sure I wasn’t missing anything. My heart raced but my voice stayed
calm. When the ambulance finally arrived, I exhaled.
I was 25 years old and that call was one of the most stressful 3
minutes of my life. You might think, but it was just 3 minutes, and
you did everything correct, and the five-year-old girl was still
breathing. It’s not like you had to instruct mom to do CPR over the
phone! You’re right about all of those things. But the thing is we
never know. I called the hospital later that day to check up on the
little girl. The nurse put me on hold. She picked up and put me on
hold again. Finally she had an update:
“I’m so sorry, but the patient died. She had an embolism that
dislodged (into her lung). We had a critical incident stress debriefing
for all of the responders and staff involved. I’m so sorry, we should
have included you.”
I continued working as an ambulance dispatcher for another
year, and then was hired with Minneapolis 911 as a call-taker. I was
upfront with my new employer that I was training to become a
firefighter. They were used to applicants using the 911 job as a
segway into police or fire, so it didn’t hinder them from hiring me. I
was trained with seven other recruits. Our training included
memorizing hundreds of computer codes, learning radio language
and sequences of questions, doing a ride-along with the police, and
sitting with a trainer for months answering actual 911 calls until we
were signed-off as competent to take calls on our own.
A squad picked me up for my ride-along at 0600 on a rainy
summer morning in front of City Hall. Despite the early hour, I was
hyper-alert and awake, the nerves of riding in a police car for the
first time gave me that extra boost of adrenaline. We cruised through
downtown towards Bobby & Steve’s gas station, where squads fuel up
and police officers are known to grab food and coffee at all hours of
the day and night. My officer went in to grab coffee, while I waited
anxiously in the squad car listening to radio traffic, deciphering some
of the language that I had recently learned in class. I looked up to see
my escorting officer coming back with coffee in hand.
She buckled up and casually said, “We’ve got a slumper.”
My head raced trying to place what she was saying. Something
as easy as “slumper” (a person slumped over the wheel of their
parked car) should have clicked immediately, but my nerves were
blocking my brain from processing. Still casual she flipped lights and
sirens on and off we went to check on the slumper.
During the short 10 block trip between Bobby & Steve’s and our
destination, I calmed down. The adrenaline of riding code-3 in a
police car somehow calmed my rookie nerves. As we pulled up,
several cars matching the description of the vehicle lined the street,
but through the rainy windshield I spotted our slumper. I jumped out
of the car and immediately went into rescue mode. I pulled the man
from his vehicle and lay him on the cobblestone road. No pulse, no
breath. Start CPR. I directed the police officer to grab her CPR kit
from her trunk, and I started chest compressions. Within a few
minutes the ambulance arrived, and we helped load our patient onto
the gurney, as the medics performed ALS care.
The rest of the shift is a bit of a blur. I know we got lunch at
some point. We met another cop friend of hers who was on duty. I
think she paid for my burger at Maxwell’s. The outcome of that call
was better than the earlier one I described. Turns out, my CPR skills
ended up saving the man’s life. My 911 supervisors were ecstatic that
one of their own was instrumental in a real live rescue. I was
awarded the Police Chief’s Award of Merit for my efforts.
After 9 months as a 911 call-taker, working the overnight shift,
and listening to some of the most horrific things that humans are
capable of doing, I was offered a firefighting job. That was 21 years
Recently while drinking coffee at the fire station and talking
with the crew coming on duty. the radio-traffic buzzed in the
background.We heard a familiar voice in the fire dispatcher sending
out calls to rigs around the city.
“Hey that’s our favorite dispatcher,” one of them said.
“Do you know her?” I asked.
“No, not personally, but we love it when she’s on fire dispatch.
She has the most friendly and calm voice.”
I knew exactly who it was. Angel was in my dispatch class of
seven, 21 years ago. She was the only one in our class left; the only
one of us who had made a career out of it.
“Her name is Angel,” I said.
Not missing a beat, one of the firefighters said, “Angel. Angel of
Indeed she is an Angel of the Air! Here’s to all of the amazing
dispatchers and 911-call takers, the angels-of-the-air, who keep us
safe, who keep us calm with their reassuring and steady voices, and
who are the often overlooked and unseen—first-first-responders.
by Staff Captain Casidy Anderson