Tell Me Exactly What Happened


I just finished reading an interesting book, Tell Me Exactly What Happened, which will be published in September by the Minnesota Historical Press. It is the second book by Caroline Burau, a former 911 call taker/dispatcher from Minnesota. It was not what I expected.

When I was in EMT school, I read every book I could find about EMTs and paramedics. I wanted to know what this new field I was considering was like. I wanted any story or tidbit that would help me find my way through the unknown. I never read or even thought about reading a book about 911 dispatch.

I understand the value of the 911 dispatcher, but as a field provider, like I think most field providers (at least in commercial EMS), my relationship with dispatch is at times, more one of annoyance than true camaraderie. That is for two reasons.


1) Tell us what to do and we have to do what they say. They sit in front of their consoles and play us like we are a video game. They are the proverbial messengers in the don’t kill the messenger saying.

2) We always recognize when they screw up, but we never notice when they do their job flawlessly. In this way, they are sort of like the offensive line of a football team. You only notice them when the quarterback gets sacked or they commit a hold and draw a penalty flag. They truly are unappreciated by us.

Despite the antipathy I sometimes feel toward dispatch, I have always recognized their job is a hard one and one I would never want to do. The system simply couldn’t run without their contribution. Some companies require new EMTs to spend a few hours observing in dispatch so they will better understand life on the other end of the microphone. I have never had that opportunity, but see the value in it.

Burau’s book helped provide that perspective for me.

The dispatchers get the tension of the unknown — the woman possibly not breathing, the man shot, or the child screaming for an unknown reason. Then as soon as the paramedics arrive, they get the phone hung up on them, and have only their imagination of the scene, while we get the full story. I think it would be very interesting to be able to hear what they are talking about as we approach the house in much the same way it would be interesting for dispatch to see a video of our on scene encounter. Sometimes over the years, I have had a dispatcher call me after a call to get the low down, and on a rare occasion, I have had the 911 call played for me. I remember one time I got dispatched for the man with a “screw in his face.” The dispatcher wanted to know what that was all about. It turned out he was simply “Blue in the face.”

Tell Me Exactly What Happened is an honest account of what it is like to sit behind the mike in a dispatch center. This is not a book filled with tense moment by moment recountings of memorable 911 calls that leave you hanging on the end of your seat. But the book does make you feel like you are sitting there, trying to deal with multiple calls and tasks at the same, and handle all the complaints from caller and crews alike. Not only does Burau have to deal with people on the other end of the microphone, like most work places, she has to deal with internal politics and co-workers, and all their peculiarities.

New Picture (2)

I was intrigued enough by Burau’s book that I went out and bought her first book, Answering 911: Life in the Hot Seat, which I am reading now. It has more in the way of the tense 911 calls than the second book, as you would expect from a new dispatcher. The second book reflects an older, borderline burned out view as she describes her gradual loss of enthusiasm for the work and a need for a change in her life.

Overall, Burau is an excellent writer who offers welcome insight into the world of 911 dispatch. I would recommend “Tell Me Exactly What Happened” for responder and layperson alike.

One last mention: I loved this passage describing dealing with a road crew:


Wade squints at the map like we’re not done moving trucks around. I so want to be done moving trucks around.
“And 722 should head to Station Four now.”
“Shit. That’s right. I had them en route to Two,” I sigh.
“Yep. But now they can head back to Four.”
“722, you can head back to Four.”
“Copied, 700. Turning around.”
It’s the weirdest thing. Paramedics hate turning around. As far as I know their vehicles are 100 percent turnaround capable, complete with steering wheels, tires, turn signals, and all the latest turning-around technology. Still. It’s a thing with them.”
“Copy. You’re…turning around.”


As a paramedic. I hate turning around, or in other words, driving in circles. You can spend two hours driving from post to post, and then getting a call back to where you were when you started your post to post sight-see tour. System status management (the true villain) demands cars constantly relocate to potentially shorten response times, but sometimes you feel like the dispatchers are moving you just to torment you. Turning around.

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