Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Book Review: 'Answering 911: Life in the Hot Seat' by Caroline Burau

✰✰✰ Have you ever wondered about who is on the other end of the line when you dial 911? What does it take to be the calm in the storm when faced with emergencies? Author Caroline Burau answers these questions and more as she tells it like it is by sharing stories of life in the hot seat. On a daily basis, emergency dispatchers across the country alternate between periods of boredom and chaotic activity. As first responders, dispatchers must be prepared to handle anything from reports of theft to multiple car accidents to horrific shootings to delivering a baby.

While all jobs have challenges, life as an emergency dispatcher can require sacrifice and perseverance, grit and assertiveness. The call centers are open 24/7, including holidays, and shifts can vary. Burau discuss the challenges of learning a new job while raising a daughter as well. She is also very candid about her previous drug addiction and how that influenced her desire to help people.

Readers will feel as if they are along for the ride as they experience the highs and lows of a job that few people think about, but depend upon when they are in trouble. 
The Bottom Line: Burau’s book is a fast-paced look at the complex job of being an emergency dispatcher. As a former journalist, Burau’s writing is brutally honest, easy to read, and sometimes humorous. The anecdotes provide an inside look at what it’s like to be in the hot seat with lives depending on you. Recommended for anyone considering a career in law enforcement and rescue work. 
Book Club Notes: As a group we had lots to say about this book. Some of us really enjoyed it, while others really didn't. Nonetheless, everyone had an opinion. We agreed that this is a tough job, and not everyone is suited for the pressures of being an emergency dispatcher. Most of us have used the service with varying experiences. Getting to read about emergencies from a first person perspective was interesting. The chapters were mostly short and easy to read. However, a few of us didn't like the choppy writing style. Burau talks a lot about the frustration of not getting to know the end of people's stories, and we agreed. We wanted to know the ends of the stories as well. Finally, we all learned the importance of knowing where you are at all times.

On a scale of 1 to 5 (with 5 being the highest), members rated the book from 2 - 4 with an average of 3. Recommended for book clubs looking for a short, yet engaging, read. There was plenty to discuss within the pages of this book.
This book did not include a discussion guide. Thus, I took the time to come up with questions to provide structure for our discussion. Since these questions might be useful to other groups, I have included them below. The questions are divided into categories which suited our group. 

For the reader:  
  • Before reading this book, did you have any understanding of what being a dispatcher is like? Did you think it would be easy? How have your impressions changed?
  • All of the calls are different. Would that kind of work appeal to you? Why or why not? 
  • Imagine you are in the “hot seat.” How would you deal with it?
  • Was there a story from the book that made an impression on you?
  • Were there any parts of the book that made you stop reading?
  • This is basically a book about helping people. Does anyone have a job helping people? What does it mean to you to be able to help others?
  • Have you ever called 911? Please share your experience.
About Burau: 
  • Burau shares her past about being a drug addicted teen. How did this influence her decision to become a dispatcher?
  • How did becoming a mother and a dispatcher at the same time affect the author? In each role she worries: “What if I make a mistake & someone gets hurt?”  Plus, the 2 roles continually step on each other. 71
  • She wonders: “Maybe parenting is something you’re either good at or you’re just not.” 73      Are parenting skills something you are born with or something you learn?
  • She says,  “I was also haunted by the idea that what you did or didn’t do in high school would absolutely shape who you became in adulthood.” 20                Do you agree?
  • Her brother was hyperactive. That was his word. Growing up Burau didn’t know how to define herself. She didn’t have a word. 19     Which word would you choose to describe her? How would you define yourself growing up? And now?
  • Burau wants this job to be her calling. 35       Discuss what it means to have a calling. 
About the Job: 
  • Do you consider dispatchers to be first responders?
  • What are some of the qualities that would make someone a good dispatcher?
  • By taking the call, she becomes involved. Discuss the emotional toll of being involved.
  • Discuss almost never getting to know the end of the story. P. 114
  • Discuss NO debriefing opportunities for the dispatchers.
  • Discuss the complexity of the job: multiple screens, giving first aid, gathering information, dispatching, etc
  • How does new technology change the job? (This book was written in 2006.) Also, consider there are fewer land lines and more cell phones now. How does this complicate the job?
  • What do you think of regional dispatch centers compared to local?
  • Discuss her relationships with the other dispatchers.
  • Discuss Kristen. The other dispatchers fear her. The cops, who depend on her, respect her. Kristen has been there 30+ years. “I wonder if it was a conscious decision on her part, or just a slow, steady slipping away of the years. 107            Do you think the author misjudged Kristen? Have you ever misjudged anyone?
  • Discuss the personal sacrifices of working this type of job. For example, the challenges of raising a child while on shift duty.
  • Do SASGs or Wannabes help or hurt the police?
  • Talk about EMD (emergency medical dispatch).
  • Burau notes that on the job: “Not only is there no way to make everyone happy, it’s nearly impossible to make anyone happy.” 150     Is this true in other situations as well?
Other Questions: 
  • She asks, “Why are we so hesitant to act on anyone’s behalf but our own?” 149 And if you knew something was happening in your neighborhood, would you call home? 85
  • Discuss why domestics are the most dangerous calls they take. 142
  • She notes: Sometimes “victims of mid- to low-level crimes are more irritable than victims of high-level or violent crime. They have had more time to think about how badly they’ve been wronged.  They don’t get enough validation from anyone around them about how badly they’ve been wronged.” 192                            Do you agree?
  • One day someone makes light of death. It bothers the author. 124 Would it bother you?
  • She is dismayed that “…sometimes I find myself taking a certain tone with people that I know I would hate if I were on the other end of it.” 153        Has this happened to you? On either end? How did you deal with it?
  • Discuss the writing style.
  • Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the book.
  • Rate the book from 1 – 5 and share why you did or didn’t enjoy it. 

Details: Answering 911: Life in the Hot Seat by Caroline Burau. Paperback published by Borealis Books in 2006. 206 p. ISBN: 978-0-87351-602-0 

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