'9-1-1' and the Importance of Being Seen

The debut of Fox's new show '9-1-1' was something I had circled on my internal calendar for awhile now. I had initially heard that it was in development last summer, starring Angela Bassett. I was excited about it, because the initial news seemed to be that the show was going to be about 911 Dispatchers. Turns out, it includes police and fire as well as 911 dispatchers, which was a little disappointing, because there are plenty of shows about police and firefighters, but precious few about dispatchers, but what the heck, I thought. I'll take it.

It's not something I write about often and when I do, its usually pretty tangentially, but I've been working as a 911 Dispatcher for the local campus police for nearly a decade now. Having long since resigned myself to the fact that dispatch will forever be a voice on the radio when it comes to television and movies (or the cops will just magically know where to go) I was excited to see that someone was taking the time to portray 911 Dispatching on screen.

So I was somewhat surprised by the vehement reaction to this show on line. The 911 Subreddit hated it. Reaction on a few dispatcher Facebook groups I follow wasn't much better. And I can sort of understand why. The cocky young firefighter who takes the truck out to pick up the ladies for sexy time? He would have been fired. The cop taking on a home invasion without a single backing unit in evidence? Unlikely to happen. Not to mention answering every 9-1-1 call with, '9-1-1, what's your emergency?'

That last one really sticks in my craw a little bit. I mean, I get it. The whole conceit (or theme) of the show is that everyone has an emergency in their lives and yes, it can include the people that come running to your emergency. There might be 911 centers out there than answer there calls like that, but the overwhelming majority are going to want to know the location or address of your emergency first and foremost.

Is it a perfect television show? No, I'd say it's off to a bit of a rocky start. But there's good mixed in with the not-so-good. This is probably the first television show I can remember which shows First Response from phone call to resolution. The second episode where the characters are all talking about getting over a bad call and how to deal with losing people? A lot of that rings very true to me as well. Is there going to be dramatic license taken? Of course. It's a television show... I've watched many an episode of Grey's Anatomy with the Missus, who's a nurse and I know damn well that there's plenty they get wrong. A show like 9-1-1 is going to be no different.

But at least this show doesn't treat dispatch as an afterthought. At least this show sheds a light on 9-1-1 dispatchers and what they do. We live in a time when 9-1-1 dispatchers are more often than not providing life saving instructions as soon as they pick up the phone. We live in a time where the 9-1-1 system, which has been at the cutting edge of telecommunications technology for decades is now struggling to keep pace. When APCO is trying to persuade the Federal government to reclassify dispatchers as Protective Service Occupations instead of 'office and administrative support, a show like this, however flawed you may find it, provides an important opportunity for Dispatchers to be seen.

Does this show present a total accurate picture of 911 Dispatch? No. But it does (so far) a decent job of telling the story of what it can be like on the other end of the phone. It shows what a difference great dispatcher can make and most importantly of all, it's an opportunity push the industry and the job itself into the wider cultural zeitgeist. (Assuming this show goes the distance that is.) The opportunity to be seen is reason enough for me to keep this show on my DVR.

Plus, I don't care what anyone says: it's still better than 'The Call.'


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