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Near drownings. Spousal abuse. Carjackings in progress. Most people would agree that angst-ridden 911 calls represent the height of hysteria.
But tragedy aside, longtime Valley emergency operator Beth Compton claims a lot of that 911 hysteria is, well, distressingly funny.
The result is Did You Say An Alligator?, a self-published collection of bizarre and/or purportedly humorous anecdotes that suggest that the emergency telephone number is ofttimes a three-digit passport to hilarity. Tales range from an episode about a concerned pet owner whose poodle had bumped its head to an account of a triple homicide stemming from a drunken argument over the proper method of raising hogs.
"Working 911 isn't always the glamorous, life-and-death struggles that are regularly portrayed on programs like Rescue 911," says police dispatcher Compton, a 10-year veteran of west Valley 911 hot lines. "Very often the 911 system is cluttered up with the bizarre, the silly and the downright stupid, like the woman who called to ask where she could buy a ceiling fan, because with the record-high July temperatures, she felt it was an emergency."
Currently working as a dispatcher for the Tolleson Police Department, Compton hasn't kept stats on the ratio of genuine emergencies versus abuse of the 911 service. But during her decadelong tenure manning the lines (she's also worked in Youngtown, El Mirage and Surprise), Compton's amassed enough goofy stories to fill a 150-page paperback scheduled to roll off a local vanity press in August.
The title anecdote refers to an officer's disbelieving response after Compton relayed a message from an elderly man who phoned in to complain that a huge alligator was prowling around his lawn. When a search of the man's property failed to turn up any sign of the creature, the officer told the homeowner he hadn't seen an alligator.
"Of course you can't see him," retorted the man. "He's invisible."
"Oh, that alligator," answered the cop. After being assured that the officer had indeed run the renegade reptile off the premises, the grateful gent phoned Compton back to thank her.
Others who've called Compton have been considerably less grateful, like the red-faced cop who was forced to phone in for assistance when, while checking out flooded washes, he found his new police car floating in a rain-choked gully.
"A lot of people I've worked with have been a little nervous about this book," confides Compton, who changed names and locations to protect the not-so-innocent--even though transcripts of 911 calls are public record. Characterizing her tome as a testament to "human stupidity," Compton says, "some of the things that people have said to me over 911 are not to be believed."
Scottsdale Mayor Sam Campana, who made national headlines when it was revealed she frequently called 911 for directions while driving to various events, should consider herself lucky that Compton never answered any of her calls.
"That made me so mad," fumes Compton. "That's clearly misuse of the system. If it had been anyone else who did that, I'm sure they'd have been cited."
If one bane of a 911 operator's existence is people like Campana, who tie up the line with nonsensical questions, an even bigger problem is the knowledge that lives might have been saved if only someone hadn't been so hesitant to use the system.
According to Compton, a west Valley woman once waited at least two hours after her husband suffered a seizure (even going so far as to prepare his dinner in the interim) before determining that the situation--his body was turning blue--warranted a call to 911.
A somewhat similar scenario unfolded when, while returning from a night on the town with his family, an elderly gentleman collapsed on the sidewalk in front of his home. Leaving the man outside, everyone frantically raced inside the house; the family reportedly spent at least a half-hour trying to figure out what to do before a friend whom they'd called suggested phoning 911.
Compton claims there seems to be no pattern to 911 use and/or misuse. "There are days I've sat there, and it hasn't rung at all," she reports. "Other days, it's back-to-back."
Still, "holidays seem to be the worst," says Compton. "Everybody decides they'd better go visit dear old mom--and everyone hates everyone else. More than once, I've had poor old mom call and say, 'Get these people outta my house before I kill all of 'em!'"
Compton's toll-free advice? "In my opinion, family holidays should never be celebrated by the family."
Contact Dewey Webb at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org