911 suicide calls a daily occurrence

PARKERSBURG – Around Christmas time 2011, Wood County 911 dispatcher Shirley Gilchrist-Morris remembers an elderly caller who shot himself while on the phone with her.

No one said a dispatcher’s job was easy, but handling suicide attempts or suicide calls have to be some of the most difficult ones to handle.

The local 911 center, which serves Wood and Wirt counties, received 1,060 suicide-related emergency calls in 2011 and 1,155 in 2012, an average of three daily. Included in those statistics would be any call that comes in that is classified as a suicide. It’s put on the dispatch card as such, whether the caller is threatening suicide, or a third party is involved and they call 911.

“It was right around Christmas time. I took a call; an elderly gentleman called in. This happened in 2011. The first thing he said was ‘I want to kill myself.’ I asked him why. He said he was lonely. I asked him if he was married. He said his wife has passed away and he just didn’t want to live anymore, then bang,” Gilchrist-Morris said.

The caller had killed himself while the dispatcher was talking to him on the phone.

“I stayed on the phone until the officer got there, and the other personnel. I had a couple of officers call in, the coroner, paramedic and they said there was nothing more I could have done. He apparently had everything laid out. He’d obviously planned it all out. He left a note and everything,” she said. “It makes you feel very useless, that you didn’t do enough for them. You ask yourself if there was something else you could have done, more, to have prevented it.”

The eight-year veteran dispatcher said she did need to leave the dispatch station for a while after the call.

“It was very shocking to think there was somebody out there that felt that lonely, that he couldn’t go to someone, to talk to someone,” she said.

“Most of the time when you talk to someone, they are desperate. You try to keep them talking about other things and hope their mind goes in a different direction,” she said.

Gilchrist-Morris said it was only two to three minutes into the call before she heard the gunshot. She said it did help that the officers called to reassure her.

“It did help to know there was nothing more I could have done on my part. But I still felt really bad,” she said, noting she still thinks about the call at Christmas time.

She had just lost a member of her family, which made the call even more poignant.

“Sometimes it’s where you are personally and emotionally too,” Gilchrist-Morris said.

Douglas Moore has been a dispatcher for more than 10 years.

“We all take suicide-related calls, just about every day it seems like,” Moore said.

Many times, drugs are involved, said dispatcher Teri Kerns, another a 10-year veteran.

“Drugs are a big issue,” she said.

Dispatchers have different ways to deal with such tragedies.

“I leave work at work, you have to. If you took everything home with you, you would not be able to do this job. That’s what I’ve always tried to do,” said Jillian McCauley, who has been a dispatcher four years.

“There are some things that occur that you do take home with you. But you have to realize you have done everything you could do. With the training we receive, we know what’s expected and what we need to do, you try to handle it,” she said. “As long as we know we’ve tried and treated the person as a family member of friend, there’s not much more you can do.”

Moore has had personal experience trying to deal with a call about a suicide. Several years ago a family member committed suicide and he received the call reporting the death. Moore said he immediately recognized the caller’s voice, but it took the caller a while to realize to whom she was talking.

“You focus on the job, try to control your emotions,” Moore said.

There are many ways to get help if someone is having suicidal thoughts, McCauley said. Dispatchers don’t criticize or judge, McCauley said.

Kerns recalled an incident where a caller from Wirt County whose wife had just passed away and the ambulance hadn’t returned to Parkersburg with her body before her husband had a gun and was threatening suicide.

“These types of calls are a daily occurrence, people threatening suicide everyday,” 911 Director Randy Lowe said.

Whenever possible, Lowe said he continuously tries to find ongoing and specialized training for the dispatchers in handling these types of calls.

There are calls like suicide attempts, or suicides, calls that have a major impact on the lives and well-being of the caller, family or friend. If needed, Lowe said the center helps dispatchers get counseling if they feel they need to talk to a professional about job-related issues.

“Some of our dispatchers have taken advantage of that over the years,” he said.

Lowe was a policeman for 21 years before becoming 911 director, and responded to several calls that involved suicides.

“In public safety jobs, you have to have a shield to not let the emotion penetrate. We are all human, but you can’t show that emotion while you are doing your job,” he said.

“Usually if someone is calling us, they want someone to know and they usually tell you right up front whether they intend to follow through, or they are thinking of it. They are scared, they don’t know where else to turn, they call 911 in an effort to get help,” Lowe said. “We are not faceless robots or computers answering the phone, we have emotions and we still have to go home. Some do a really good job blocking that, keeping that separated from home life. I never discussed what I did at work with my family.”