Rescue 911


Caroline Burau
Answering 911:
Life in the Hot Seat

Borealis Books

Back in the early '90s, Fox aired a run of high trash united by its unstinting focus on the tawdry, the crackpot, and the just plain wrong. These were the days of Alien Autopsy and the first, brilliant When Animals Attack (the footage of a deer kicking a guy's ass while his wife kept the video camera running has yet to be surpassed). The king of the inextinguishable cultural tire fire was, of course, Cops.

Seen for the first time, Cops struck these eyes as a stinging indictment of law enforcement's cynicism, indifference, and arbitrariness. But then I watched it again. And again. Kansas City. Fresno. Boston. It didn't matter the name of the city or town. It all started to blur together into an unending shitstorm of bad behavior: spousal abuse, shirtless drunken ranting, crash-and-run driving, the bloody fight that no one remembers in the dry-out tank come sunup. Another reality became clear: Cops regularly have to wade into the most insane, degraded, and self-defeating behavior of a species that tends to specialize in such things.

Caroline Burau got her own fuck-ups out of the way early, she reveals in her memoir Answering 911: Life in the Hot Seat. While still in high school in White Bear Lake, she was turned on to crack cocaine by an older boyfriend who would promptly squander the next several years of her life. Complaining of a stuffy head, she was offered a rock.

"He told me that crack would cure my cold," Burau writes. "I didn't believe him, but did it anyway. He was absolutely right. He was so very right."

A period of druggy drifting followed, though Burau eventually made it back to her Minnesota home and started searching for decent work. She paints the process with a restraint that typifies this spare, often reserved book. It turns out that her lack of a serious criminal record came in handy when she decided to take a shot as a 911 operator, seeking the superior pay and following the conviction that "I like helping people."

Burau strikes a nice balance between describing the intensity of the job and her civilian life in White Bear with a husband and new stepdaughter. What the book suffers from is an unavoidable reality: While writing her manuscript, Burau worked for a suburban jurisdiction—specifically, the Ramsey County sheriff's department. Her account is markedly lacking in the nonstop, white-knuckle, big-city breakdowns one inevitably wants to experience vicariously.

So there are accounts of long stretches in which nothing much happens—it's good for lowering the blood pressure but poor for getting the pulse beating. Still, Burau lays out a detailed and convincingly anxiety-provoking picture of a job that involves such great detail and high potential for horrific error that it takes a year before one can be legitimately considered bad at it. She tells of a call in which a man slurred and mumbled, making it impossible for her to direct anyone to check on his safety. It turns out he was a homeowner making repairs who had fallen, and subsequently died alone. Burau's account nicely draws the reader into the world of a do-gooder stretched to the limits of her ability to help at all.

That's not to get into the legions who may not want to be helped. "In this age of cordless phones," she adds, "sometimes my callers are able to multitask: screaming at me on the phone while trying to kill each other. I'm waiting for the day when someone puts me on speaker phone so as to keep both hands free to strangle a spouse."

We're not led to any great conclusions, and there's a sense that Burau has to stretch limited experience to pad out the book. Though the prose is unexceptional, it's tough. We see a perceptive mind trying to make sense of both internal and external chaos.

"At the root of it is the desire to make sense of the vast minefield of things I still don't understand," Burau admits. "Things I never even knew took place. Why do mothers call their children motherfuckers? Why do people adopt dogs, then starve and beat them?"

The answers are not forthcoming—but the calls keep coming anyway.