Friday April 22, 2016

POV | A 911 operator shares his funniest, scariest and drunkest calls

In just three years as a 911 operator in Toronto, Graeme Lottering has already heard just about everything.

In just three years as a 911 operator in Toronto, Graeme Lottering has already heard just about everything. (CBC montage)

By Graeme Lottering, as told to DNTO

​I've been a 911 operator in Toronto since 2013.

The first call I ever got as a 911 operator was a lady calling for her aunt who was choking on food. She had already choked to the point where she was unconscious and passed out on the floor. The caller was hysterical. I was freaking out, too.

I started talking the caller through CPR. I was shaking and sweating buckets. I could hear that my voice was cracking but I was trying to stay as calm as I could.

After a couple of minutes of CPR, the food just popped out of the woman's mouth. Almost miraculously, she got up and became conscious again. The caller was extremely thankful and I was completely in a daze. It was one of the most intense calls I've ever gotten and it was a total trial by fire. 

Graeme Lottering

When you have an emergency in Toronto, who you gonna call? Graeme Lottering! He's a 911 operator in the city. (Photo courtesy Graeme Lottering)

The strangest call I ever got was a lady who phoned in with a very strong accent. She was asking for help and when we finally got an interpreter on the line to ask her what the problem was she said, "I'm cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the first time and I need a recipe for making a turkey!" I just told her to check online or ask her neighbour.

I got a frantic phone call one day from a lady who said, "My boy, I think he died!" When I told her to put her mouth on his mouth to do CPR, she asked how to do that with a snout. That's when I realized she was actually phoning about her dog! We ended up still doing CPR but I kind of modified the instructions a little bit.

Drunk calls pay my wages. They happen all the time. One time a guy was passed out at a frat party so his friends called 911. Part of the protocol we say is, "Reassure him that help is coming." So his friends were reassuring him but they never told him who was coming.

The drunk guy started freaking out. I could hear him in the background shouting, "Who's coming for me?!"

I told his friends, "Just tell him the medics are coming to assess him." So the friends passed it on and I overheard the drunk frat boy say, "I don't want them to have sex with me!"

One day I got a call from a guy in a food court. He said, "I think this girl sitting across from me just had a seizure." Then he said, "Do you want to talk to her?" Which is a red flag because you can't usually talk to someone while they're having a seizure. So he handed the phone to her and I asked her to tell me what happened.

The girl lowered her voice quietly and said, "It's kind of embarrassing but I was just batting my eyelashes at this guy, trying to have him notice me and then he called 911." So obviously she was just trying to blink and make eyes at this guy but it didn't quite work out.

I told her, "Next time just go for a wink."

911 call centre

911 operators never know what they're gonna get when they pick up the phone. (CBC)

The most serious call I ever took, the one that got my heart beating the most, was this guy who was calling to say, "Send the fire department for a clean up. I'm gonna jump off this bridge."

The guy was dodging all my questions and wouldn't tell me where he was. I listened for background noises and I tried to visualize bridges going over valleys. Was he over train tracks? Was he over a river? Was he over the highway? In the background I heard water. I got a GPS on him and put the location on the map. It was still kind of a guess but I was hoping it was where he was.

Meanwhile, I was just trying to keep him online as long as possible but he didn't want to talk about anything. I said, "People will miss you, your family will miss you." At that point he said, "I don't have a family." So I knew I had to be very careful what I said.

My heart was beating. I decided to talk about things in my own life, about when I had felt bad, too. I told him life is about endurance and overcoming things. I was just throwing out platitudes. The guy was giving me nothing but, luckily, he was staying on the line.

Finally I said, "This too shall pass."

And at that moment he said, "Hmmmm." Like it dawned on him that maybe this was part of life and that things might get better. But just then, he dropped the phone. In 911, that is absolutely the worst situation ever.

I thought the guy had jumped so my heart was just racing like crazy. But, almost just as quickly, the phone got picked up. It was a police officer. He said he had snuck up on the guy. "Don't worry," the cop said. "We got him. We pulled him off the edge."

My job is really intense but it's so rewarding. A lot of times you get people who are angry or upset but if you really help someone, they'll say thank you, and it's the most genuine experience you can get.

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Listen to DNTO's episode about phone stories, including a full interview with 911 operator Graeme Lottering.