Shirley Dunlap’s voice is what many Maricopa county citizens hear when they grab the phone to seek help in an emergency. Her job takes calm patience, a thick skin and the ability to visualize what might be happening on the other end of the line. For 23 years, she has guided unseen, often frantic callers through the tragedies and triumphs of life from her post in the alarm room of the Phoenix Fire Department—all while monitoring radios and dispatching aid to locations across the Valley.
Vicki: What does it take to be a good 911 operator?
Shirley: You have to be able to be assertive. Your callers are oftentimes very upset, and very rude. You can’t be the type of person that is going to cry if someone calls you a name on the phone.
Vicki: Why would anyone be rude to a 911 operator?
Shirley: Because of the situation that’s happening to them. The emergency. For us to get someone to you, we have to make sure we are going to the right address. Sometimes, the person says, “Just send me help, now!” It’s one thing if the caller has flu-like symptoms, but if there was a shooting…we don’t want to send firefighters into something blind. So if we don’t know, we will ask the police to go first so we can make sure it is safe for the firefighters.
Vicki: How has your job changed over the years as the Valley has grown, and technology has exploded?
Shirley: When I started, we dispatched for three cities. Now we’re up to 21. In those first few years, we did around 60,000 calls per year. Now we do around 400,000. We have GPS, so you’re always assured of getting the closest, most available unit. Before, we had to go by the station location. Even though [firefighters] might be at the grocery store, and technically that was the closer unit, we didn’t know that. And now we do.
Vicki: What are the toughest calls to take?
Shirley: The calls that get to you usually involve children. One call I remember [came from] a couple of children who were trapped in a house fire. It was on the night shift. I didn’t feel like it had affected me at work, but when I came home to go to bed, I walked straight upstairs, crying.
Vicki: Any that you’ll always have with you?
Shirley: We have a lot of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) calls. I remember a mother calling, and a father was doing CPR on an infant. I was giving instructions to her, and she was giving them to the father. And I believe she knew that it was too late. But the words that really got to me [were] when she said, “She’s just so tiny.” It was those words. Just the sound of the mother’s voice. There was a finality to it. She knew.
Vicki: How do you get past a call like that so that you can answer the phone again?
Shirley: I think of my brain sometimes as a computer. I file it away, and at different times I might take it out and remember it and think about it. I close that file, and I just don’t visit it unless there is a reason to.
Vicki: You raised three boys as a single mom. Did your job influence any rules you set for them as teens?
Shirley: In high school, they always wanted to stay out later than what I would allow. I was probably a little stricter than most parents, because I know what goes on at night.
Vicki: What is one thing that makes your job different than most, on a day-to-day basis?
Shirley: You sit and you wait. You wait until something happens, then you have to be ready to go when it does hit. You have to be ready to step up to the plate and take it from there. RAK
More at raisingarizonakids.com
What happens when you call 911?
Shirley spells it out in a web extra.