Holding The Line

Brian Stauffer

As the shadows lengthen, Minneapolis City Hall sheds its bustling diurnal disposition for the stately air of an old museum. In the center of its cavernous foyer, beneath vaulted ceilings and an enormous stained-glass window, the figure of the Father of the Waters watches over the hushed expanse. The stillness is punctured only occasionally by the sound of heels on the cool, gray marble floors and the chuckle of the security guard as he trades barbs with another night staffer.

Ten feet below, the action is just beginning. Under the eerie glow of a faux skylight, the rings of a dozen phones blur into one long peal. The 30-by-50 room is a tangle of equipment and wires, millions of black, red, and translucent lines; operators are hunkered down, headsets in place, fingers flying over the keyboards. There are shifts--usually on weekend nights--when they'll be glued to their chairs for hours, backs screaming and bladders ready to burst, trapped until the ringing abates. Over time you learn to ignore your body's messages, they counsel, and to pace your fluid intake.

But this is a rare cool, quiet summer Saturday night, and there's time for breaks at the Minneapolis Emergency Communications Center. Operators revel in the luxury of being able to stand and stretch, shake the cramps out of their hands, and exchange stories. One of the women--90 percent of the staff is female--is getting married soon; there's talk of wedding presents, menus, guest lists. Then it's on to supervisors, overtime, vacation requests. Finally the talk turns, as it regularly does, to Joe Louis Brown.

Brown was the man who, at 8:30 a.m. on a Monday morning in May, spotted a stranger swigging beer on the front steps of the house next door to his in Minneapolis's Field neighborhood. The event didn't sound like a crisis to the operator who took Brown's 911 call; so rather than entering the

information into the computerized emergency response system, she sent an e-mail message to the 3rd Precinct notifying officers of a "suspicious person." When no cops arrived at his neighbor's house Brown called back twice, but because a call hadn't been logged, the next two operators had no idea, nor record, of what Brown was talking about. As they scrambled to make sense of his story, the stranger was busy cleaning out the neighbor's house. Frustrated, Brown finally called the mayor's office. That night, the incident would lead the 10 p.m. news.

Down in "the dungeon," the memory of the episode is still raw. Of course the operator--whom no one will identify--made a mistake, the women grouse, and of course it's all clear as day in hindsight. But why don't the TV reporters, the City Council members, and all the callers who've tied up the lines to complain try to spend a night clamped to the phones? Why don't they try juggling five angry callers and two crabby squads, on the 50th hour of the work week, with a computer that seems constantly about to crash? Don't they realize that it's only through a combination of luck and bone-hard work that worse snafus don't happen every day?

Minneapolis's emergency response system, the people in the dungeon say--along with a number of other 911 insiders and experts--is on the verge of collapse. The department is chronically understaffed, the computer and phone systems are old and technologically outdated, and operators and dispatchers are crammed into poorly designed workstations that have repeatedly been cited as causing injuries by the Minnesota Department of Labor. Employee turnover is astronomical--nearly half of the new hires are gone within two years--and morale is at an all-time low.

"The 911 department is a mess," says Bruce Johnson, a director of the Minneapolis Police Federation. "They're putting in 12-to-14-hour days, four or five days in a row, and are missing things they wouldn't ordinarily because they're overworked, overly tired, and stressed out."

Across the river in St. Paul, things aren't looking much better. "We have nights when the phones could ring for four and five minutes without an answer," says Lt. Dick Dugan, supervisor of the St. Paul Emergency Communications Center. "The stress factor is incredible. People are calling up and screaming at you because you couldn't answer their call right away."

So far, Minneapolis and St. Paul have skirted the kinds of mishaps that spawn lawsuits--like the 1995 incident in Phoenix, when a woman's estranged husband showed up at her house with a gun. Suzanne Bartok phoned 911 and was told that police were on their way. In fact, the dispatchers had given the call a low priority, and by the time the police arrived some 11 minutes later, Bartok and her boyfriend were dead. Earlier this year, a harried dispatcher in Albany, New York, failed to inform police that a caller was screaming for help, and by the time the police arrived at the apartment, the 22-year-old nursing student who lived there had been beaten to death. "Minutes matter," says Minneapolis dispatcher Jane de Kock. "I hope it doesn't take something like this to wake up the city to the fact that we need help."  

"NINE-ONE-ONE," Carrie Peterson says briskly. The green screen of her computer monitor comes alive as the location of the caller's phone automatically appears. "There's a fistfight going down at the corner of Chicago and Lake," he announces. Peterson asks if he knows the people involved (he doesn't), and has him describe their appearance--race, gender, height, build, how they're dressed. Did he see any weapons, she queries. No. She thanks him for the information, assigns a priority number, asks if he'd like to leave his name--he declines--and says that a squad will arrive shortly.

Peterson is one of eight operators working this Saturday night. Operators are the voices on the 911 phone line, the practiced interviewers who calmly take down name, address, and details of heart attacks, fires, gunshots. Following guidelines drafted by the Minneapolis Police Department, they decide which priority to assign to each call: Incidents involving violence or the threat of it--fights, rapes, robberies, hostage situations, and missing children--rate a Priority One. Suspected drug deals, loud parties, and unwanted persons at the door earn a rating of Two, while Threes include barking dogs and other "incivility" complaints.

Once assigned a priority and entered into the database--a process that usually takes no more than 60 seconds--the information is forwarded to dispatchers: Ambulance calls go to Hennepin County Medical Center, fires to the two fire dispatchers in a corner of the dungeon. Eighty percent of the calls go to the police dispatchers, four of whom are on duty tonight.

Police dispatchers are Information Central for the squads on the street. They handle up to 40 cars each and have to know exactly where each squad is at a given moment, what they're doing--heading to an address or booking a suspect at the jail--and who's available to respond to a call. Dispatchers are rarely at rest; they scroll from screen to screen tracking squads, noting response and resolution times, all the while deciphering the flood of information that continues to pour in from the operators. If there's a mistake anywhere along the way, chances are it's the dispatcher who'll take the heat. The job requires the nerves of a surgeon, the diplomacy of a seasoned politician, and the acumen of a mother.

De Kock has been a dispatcher in Minneapolis for some six years, and each one--along with 14 more years in emergency communications around the state--shows in her eyes. Dressed for comfort in an oversized white sweatshirt emblazoned with a brown teddy bear, she sits at her station like a veteran desk jockey--back and shoulders rounded, her upper body tilted forward, hands poised slightly above the keyboard.

De Kock works the overnight shift at 911, 10:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. "Ever since I was a teen, I loved staying up at night and hated getting up in the morning," she grins. "I'm still that way--I can get by on five or six hours if it's solid, uninterrupted sleep." Her introduction to emergency services came through her father's funeral parlor. "It's a small town, so he also had to be the ambulance. He'd go to the scene of an accident. Our family lived above the funeral home, so I was used to dealing with death and dying. I think that has something to do with why I can do this job."

Minneapolis 911 is a long way removed from the rural county where de Kock got her start in emergency communications, and even from her last post at the Ramsey County Sheriff's Department. "This is the most stressful location I've worked at," de Kock says. Not only are there more calls, but the nature of the incidents is more serious. "I used to get calls about skunks in the window wells, but [now] I get calls about shots being fired. I never felt that someone's life could be lost before, but now I always feel that way."

Most of the hundreds of thousands of calls de Kock has fielded have faded from memory as she's hung up her headset each morning. But there are some she can't seem to shake. "When I was working for Ramsey County, this guy called in and said to send the cops over right away," she recalls. "When I asked him why, he wouldn't explain, but kept insisting that they show up at his place. I decided to send a squad over and told him they were on the way. He thanked me and hung up. I found out later that when the cops got there, he was already dead. He'd shot himself in the head and had called the police so they'd find him before his family did."  

The hardest calls, says de Kock, are the ones involving kids. "You'll get a call about a child being shot, or a 4- or 5-year-old that's been left at home alone, it breaks your heart. I don't care how long you've been on the job." One still haunts her after 10 years--the man who called to say that a neighbor had run over his grandchild with a tractor. What she remembers most is how relaxed the man seemed. "For some reason, the more out of control a caller is, the easier it is to be calm," de Kock says. "It's the quiet ones that work your nerves."

Tonight's calls, by comparison, are run-of-the-mill. A man reports that his brother has left his place after being stabbed in the ear (he won't say by whom); hours later the brother calls in, speech slurred, to say that he's been stabbed in the hand. A mother of seven returns from work at midnight to discover that her 12-year-old son has been gone for hours and his sisters have no idea where he is. (That call is dispatched to all squads immediately.) A man spots some kids who've been missing from a nearby halfway house. And at 1:25 a.m., servers at a Taco Bell on Lake Street call in to report a "slumper"--someone who's passed out at the wheel--in their drive-through.

And, of course, there are the cranks. "People call and ask what time it is, if we can look up a number for them," Peterson says, "or when the next bus is coming." Recently, someone called to inform the staff that the MPD was the subject of that evening's episode of Cops. Some are regulars--like the woman who complains that her boyfriend's taken her keys to work with him again. Others appear only once, in a flash of inspired absurdity. "I had a call from a woman who said her pizza was 20 minutes late and could I please do something about it," says de Kock. That one had the department laughing for weeks.

THEY CAN USE the occasional guffaw. During the last 10 years, the number of calls taken by the Minneapolis center--which answers not only the 911 line but also the nonemergency police number, 348-2345--has increased slowly but steadily, rising from just under 700,000 in 1989 to more than 730,000 last year. For most of those years, Minneapolis operators have been among the busiest in the nation.

In the number of calls processed by each operator, Minneapolis ranks sixth among 17 metropolitan emergency communications centers of similar size and operations style, according to a 1996 survey compiled by the city of Arlington, Texas. Each operator took almost 22,000 calls that year; the national average was 17,500. Across the river in St. Paul, each operator processed a staggering 41,607 calls per year--the highest number in the nation, substantially ahead of runner-up Miami.

(Officials in St. Paul refused to let City Pages sit in on 911 operations; their counterparts in Minneapolis closed off access after one visit.)

The reason for the Twin Cities' above-average loads, officials and workers agree, is a chronic staff shortage. Minneapolis's 911 center has all the operators it needs--in fact, four more than the budgeted 35--but 11 of its 40 dispatcher positions are vacant. St. Paul is fully staffed, but its budget allows for only 28 operators and 13 dispatchers, the same number it had five years ago when there were 25 percent fewer calls, says director Dugan. There are shifts, he says, when just three operators handle eight incoming lines. "We've been crying for more people for the last four years," he says.

Michael Zufelt, the Arlington, Texas, emergency communications supervisor who compiled the national survey, says many 911 departments around the country struggle with staffing issues. "It's stressful, the hours are lousy, and these are jobs that weigh heavily on people's minds," he explains, adding that pay is rarely commensurate with the job's demands. New hires in Minneapolis and St. Paul start at around $15 an hour--better than the $10 offered in Zufelt's department and in most Twin Cities suburban 911 departments. Still, says Zufelt, "people can make the same amount working in banks or working for insurance companies and have a lot less stress."

You need to be wired a certain way to do the job, concedes operator Peterson. "You have to be a type A individual. You have to be driven and confident in yourself and your judgments." Applicants at the center undergo a rigorous training program designed to weed out emotional lightweights and hone the skills of those who remain. New operators spend six weeks learning where every park, school, and church in Minneapolis is located, which streets run north to south, which east to west, and how the Mississippi flows. "When people call and say they've spotted a 'jumper' or see something floating in the river, we need to pinpoint the location so we can dispatch a Hovercraft to the scene," says Peterson.  

Once they've gotten the department's Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) system down pat, new operators ride along with police, firefighters, and ambulance drivers for a week or two before hitting the operations floor. By the end of training, according to the emergency center's 1995 count, the city spends more than $7,000 on each operator.

But Minneapolis rarely reaps the rewards of its investment, argues former 911 center director Steve Oberlin. He contends, as do many employees, that the city serves as a training ground for other municipalities' emergency response systems. "Prospective operators come here and train, spend 18 months getting experience in the state's busiest 911 center, and then move on to a less stressful department in the suburbs," he maintains.

Officials at the largest suburban 911 center--Hennepin County's, which handles calls for many cities without their own 911 departments--won't comment on Minneapolis's operation, but say they have no staffing troubles despite call loads similar to the city's. Hennepin County's 44 "telecommunicators" last year took more than 1 million calls, according to Timothy Meyers, operational sergeant with the Hennepin County Sheriff's Department--for a total of 22,000 each. Yet the department has had no trouble filling its openings, and turnover is low.

One of the reasons Minneapolis alumni prefer to work in the suburbs, Oberlin says, is that they want to live there. When he took the reins in the department after a 14-year stint running communication systems for private companies, his first order of business was to relieve the department's chronic personnel shortage. He found six experienced dispatchers who were willing to work for the city. But there was one caveat: "They didn't want to move."

Since 1964, Minneapolis has gone back and forth about whether to require its employees to live in the city. Residency requirements were reinstated most recently in 1993; the ordinance included a proviso allowing the City Council to grant waivers for undefined "extenuating circumstances." But, says Oberlin, when he went to the Council asking for waivers for his candidates, "they told me that I'd bought into the employees' anti-residency complaints." No waivers were issued, and the department continued to run short.

The final standoff between the city and Oberlin came when his own six months of residency gratis expired. "I was more than prepared to live in the city," he contends. "But when push came to shove, I wanted to see who would stand beside me." A couple of days later he was cleaning out his office.

City officials contend that residency requirements have nothing to do with 911's staffing woes. "I believe that in Minneapolis, there are enough qualified people to do the job," asserts Kathleen O'Brien, Minneapolis city coordinator and a member of the Communications User Board which determines 911 policies. "This is an issue of recruitment and retention."

Not entirely, argues Peterson, who lives in Northeast Minneapolis: There's something about 911 work that makes you wish for a long commute. "It's creepy to know exactly what's going on in your neighborhood," she insists. "You find out stuff about your neighbors, or city officials or politicians, that you'd rather not know." (Operators cannot reveal information about specific incidents, but Peterson says she's thinking mostly of domestic disputes.)

"NINE-ONE-ONE." The voice at the other end of Peterson's line is female and exasperated. She called an hour ago about her boyfriend assaulting her; since then she's been waiting at the local SuperAmerica for the cops to show up. She's going back home, she announces. It's one of the few times when Peterson gets visibly upset, though the anxiety on her face never translates to her voice. She tells the woman to stay put, that she'll send a squad immediately.

"For all anyone knows, he could be waiting there for her," she says after hanging up. "Our policy is to never cancel a domestic call. The woman could have a gun to her head while being told to tell the cops all is well."

Chances are Peterson will never know the outcome of this call--whether the cops found the woman or her boyfriend, whether anyone was arrested. That's one of the hardest parts of the job, she says. "You have to make life-and-death decisions, but there's no closure. You have no idea what happens to the person on the other end of the line unless it makes the papers."  

But it's not only psychological stress that causes Peterson's neck to stiffen and her muscles to seize up; nor are nerves behind the constant fidgeting throughout the center. Workers roll back and forth in their chairs, shift in the seats, adjust their monitors, anything to keep their bodies limber. Workstations are so poorly designed, Peterson says, "that by the end of a shift my left shoulder aches, my hands are stiff, my back gets sore, and I'm physically exhausted."

And since someone is sitting at these workstations 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the wear and tear on the equipment is brutal. In Minneapolis, says de Kock, some staffers have had to spend an entire eight-hour shift in a broken chair. "The equipment we have has a 10-year life span," acknowledges Susanne Griffin, the center's operations manager, "and we're reaching the end of that." But some aches and pains are to be expected in a job that consists mostly of typing, she adds, and employees must take responsibility for reducing their work-related injuries: "Everyone is required to attend an ergonomics seminar."

It wasn't the city, however, that came up with the idea for those seminars--or with most of what workplace improvements have been made at 911 in the past few years. They were ordered by the state Department of Labor, which has cited Minneapolis 911 numerous times for violating federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules.

In 1994, the Labor Department spotted an unusually high incidence of injury in the emergency communication center's OSHA logs: Dispatchers had lost 68 days of work and were put on limited duty another 239 days due to work-related injuries. When the department conducted a full-scale investigation of the 911 work environment, it found that three-quarters of dispatchers, as well as a third of operators, complained of numbness and discomfort in their hands, wrists, shoulders, and arms. Employees had been "exposed to cumulative trauma stressors of the upper extremities resulting from excessive keystroking, static positions, and poor workstation layout," the study found. The city was fined $14,200 for willful violations of OSHA rules; the amount was reduced to $3,500 after the city agreed to address the problems by hiring an ergonomics consultant.

Since then, according to an April '98 OSHA report, Minneapolis 911 has replaced some chairs and keyboards, installed new lighting, and made other improvements that caused the number of staffers diagnosed with work-related injuries to drop from 24 in 1994 to 10 in 1996. Getting any lower, says Griffin, would require brand-new workstations and a database requiring less typing than the current 1989-vintage version.

St. Paul, which recently installed a new computer system, has an "unremarkable" work-injury record, says Dugan. He concedes that his department does record more sick days than any other in the city, but says that's due to psychological as much as physical trauma. Recently, "one of our operators answered a call from a woman who said her husband was beating her. She could hear the husband screaming in the background while the woman was pleading for help.

"She then hears the phone drop, but it wasn't hung up because she can still hear their voices. Suddenly, two shots are fired and she hears a body drop to the floor. A slight pause, and then one gunshot. After killing his wife, he turned the gun on himself." The operator needed a few days off after that, Dugan concludes.

Minneapolis's equipment problems affect more than employees' wrists and backs. The computer system requires dispatchers to flip through many screens to track squads, costing time and nerves on both ends of the line. In addition, unlike more modern dispatch databases, it lacks the capability to pull up information by anything other than a phone number, and thus often won't give operators the history of an address. "It would be helpful for the police to know if there's ever been a person with a gun there, or if shots have been fired in the past," notes de Kock.

Perhaps most troubling, insiders say, the system has taken on a habit of crashing for up to several hours at a time. When that happens, says 3rd Precinct Supervisor Lynn Meuwissen, 911 loses information on both calls from the public and the whereabouts of its squads: "Something could be happening around the corner, like shots being fired, and you don't know who's down--it could be a fellow officer--or if anyone's called in for help." While the staticky police radio system serves as a backup, says Meuwissen, it has been known to malfunction as well. So far, the city has been spared the experience of both systems crashing at the same time.  

Here, too, the problem is staffing, says Minneapolis 911's technical manager, Patty Wallin. The system itself isn't outdated, she argues, it just hasn't been maintained. "It was built to be open so you can add a lot of components to it. But this hasn't been done," she says, because of a shortage of experienced technical staff. Officials are currently looking for a computer consulting firm to help out, she adds.

Last in the trinity of problems plaguing 911 systems on both sides of the river are the physical facilities. St. Paul's Dugan says his department's operations are confined to an 80-by-60-foot room, and the operators sit shoulder to shoulder at two long countertops. The department is in the process of remodeling, but that won't translate into any more space.

Meanwhile in Minneapolis, operators and dispatchers keep their fingers crossed every time it rains: During last summer's downpours, the basement of City Hall flooded. "That was a nightmare," recalls a dispatcher. "One night we were forced to work in a pool of standing water. The phones were ringing off the hook, and we couldn't wear our headsets because they were afraid we'd be electrocuted." To commemorate the evening, the staff bought a large, white lifesaver, inscribed it with the date, and hung it on the wall.

911 director John Dejung is a quiet man. A former Coast Guard operations manager, he has retained a boyish grin into his late 40s; aside from that he's careful in voice and manner, rarely changing his tone or facial expression. If Central Casting had sent someone to suggest calm, efficient management to frazzled 911 workers, it couldn't have done much better than Dejung.

Of course, anyone might be circumspect given the recent history of the position. Over the last four years, the department has had six different directors, a degree of turnover unmatched in any other city department. The last long-term director, Paul Linnee, was fired amid allegations of sexual harassment in 1994 after almost a decade on the job. The city tapped Police Lt. Roger Aronson and 911 operations manager Griffin as interim directors; next, Oberlin served for six months, followed by a former MPD precinct commander named Bill O'Rourke. "What was supposed to be a 90-day appointment turned into a 19-month stint," says O'Rourke, who held the post from September 1995 until March 1997. He left because of what he'll only call "philosophical differences" and is now the chief of police for Prior Lake.

The leadership changes left 911 essentially "treading water" for the last four years, says Griffin. City coordinator Kathleen O'Brien concurs, saying that when Dejung was hired, "we asked him to immediately put together a report about the equipment and staffing needs. We know we've got to make changes."

In that report, compiled a month after he started the job, Dejung identified a series of problems in 911 equipment, facilities, and staffing. His first budget proposal includes a request for $1.2 million worth of renovations. But the remodeling, if funded, won't be completed until 2003, Dejung acknowledges, and he hasn't even begun fighting the equipment battle. "We need three-quarters of a million for a new phone system, and 3 to 5 million for a dispatching system," he notes. None of that, he suspects, will be coming down the City Council's pike anytime soon.

City Council member Brian Herron, a member of the Council's Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee, says Minneapolis officials are "well aware of how important [911] is, and that we're going to have to find monies in the budget to fund it. The question is where the money will come from." It's only within the last five years, Herron adds, that the City Council has gotten computers; 911 upgrades simply had to wait pending other spending priorities.

St. Paul City Council President Dan Bostrom says his city faces the same budgetary constraints. "The staffing is a problem," he acknowledges, "but we can't hire more operators if we don't have the money. [The Council] has to address the most pressing needs [of the city] first. We only have X amount of revenue with X amount of needs, and I suspect we don't always do this to everyone's liking."

Instead of money, some of those who've tried their hand at fixing 911 complain, the city will give them paper. During his tenure, Oberlin recalls, he asked for the creation of a liaison position to coordinate shifts and supervisors. Instead the city put together what he calls a "monstrous" employee manual.

O'Rourke remembers another way in which the city tried to revitalize 911 without spending a dime: Halfway through his tenure, in August 1996, the city took away the center's independence and put it under the wing of the Police Department. The move, says Council member Herron, was intended to "bring stability to the department. Since [it] didn't belong to anybody but works closely with the MPD, that seemed like the natural place for it to be."  

O'Rourke agrees with Herron's assessment, but also characterizes the move as a political maneuver on the part of Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson--who, he says, "wanted to show city officials that a police officer could manage and restore order to the 911 department."

Whatever the rationale, says Griffin, the shift did little to ease the department's woes. "There isn't much difference between now and when we were independent," she says. "We're still short on dispatchers, the equipment still needs replacing, and we still need funding."

Chief Olson, for his part, says he sympathizes with 911's workers and is trying to lighten their loads--not by increasing their staff or budget, but through his "proactive" approach to policing. "The question is: Do we chase 911, or do we have less 911 calls? We already know the old way doesn't work, and we have to find a better way to spend our resources than by just reacting to crime."

But 911 insiders have a different view of the chief's philosophy, and especially of his high-profile CODEFOR program, which blankets "hot" neighborhoods with officers in an effort to "stop crime before it starts." The squads on CODEFOR duty, dispatcher de Kock notes, still must answer Priority One calls, but are not available for most other 911 dispatches. The result, she says, is a logistical nightmare at her end of the line. "It's not uncommon for me to have only five squads out of 17 to respond to 911 calls."

August 1--the night when two men were fatally shot in the Powderhorn neighborhood--was "the busiest night I've ever worked," says de Kock. "The 3rd Precinct was saturated with cops, county deputies, and members of the [city's] gang task force. But so many of the squads were tied up that I had two pages of calls pending [an officer response], and it was driving me nuts."

Minneapolis's approach--emphasizing high-visibility police action while letting the chips at 911 fall where they may--is fairly typical, says Arlington's Zufelt. Officials and the public, he explains, tend to take 911 service for granted: "It's always there, and it's always functioning. Perhaps not as good as it could, but it's there anyway. [That's why] when it's time to go to the city for the budget, they have to fight for every penny they get."

IT'S GETTING CLOSE to 2 a.m., and Carrie Peterson settles into her final half-hour in the dungeon. She works the "power shift," 6:30 to 2:30, which peaks between midnight and 1 a.m. as people head home from bars and parties. By now the phones ring only intermittently; one of the operators has picked up her romance novel, another is immersed in a French textbook. Smoke breaks are a major production, requiring a security escort out of the building. Instead of nicotine, most workers choose a sugar high from the vending machine or the stashes in their desks. There's even time for trips to the "exercise room," a concrete-walled cell furnished with a broken stationary bike, a malfunctioning rowing machine, and, most importantly, a cot.

"Nine-one-one," Peterson says, her voice only slightly strained. Someone is ringing his doorbell, the irate homeowner on the line reports, and if the police "don't come in a timely fashion, I'll get out my gun and handle this myself." Peterson logs the information and transfers it to de Kock, who shakes her head. "There's no one available to respond," she explains, and flags the call as "pending."

At 2:16 a.m., the man calls to report that the stranger is still at his door, and he's going out with his pistol. A squad has just become available, so de Kock has the operator tell the man that officers are en route. Over the police radio, de Kock listens to the discussion between the cops and their supervisor. The officers fear the man's unstable, and the sergeant advises them to approach the house with caution. They find the man unarmed and the visitor gone. Five minutes later, they sign off.

De Kock and Peterson relax into their chairs. Had the man not been able to get through, had Peterson not convinced him to stay inside, had de Kock not found a squad--they're not talking about what might have happened. Their job is churning crisis into routine; there's no point thinking about what might go wrong. The phone rings again. Peterson punches up her screen.

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