For nearly 30 years I worked in the newsrooms of a number of small-town daily papers. Large or small, they had a lot in common. In particular they all had one same background sound, the police scanner. The staticky crackle of the radio chatter was non stop and most of the time pretty much ignored.
But there was always that change in the voice of the dispatcher that made us stop, hush up, and listen. It could be a house on fire or a cat up a tree but it was going to be something. We knew the codes to ignore and we well knew the hair-raising calls for backup.
Many were the situations of danger that our police and fire personnel would be confronting in their jobs. In Connecticut, in more populated areas, the scanner calls were broadcast at a constant drone from high-crime areas and our trained brains learned to filter them out.
Some of the calls were horrific. I remember scarcely breathing listening to the details of a toll plaza pileup that took seven lives in just a few minutes. Emergency crews from several towns performed the nightmare tasks of rescuing as many as possible while dealing with the dead and injured. From my desk I could hear the details of a firefighter pulling a baby from her car seat in the midst of the smoke and flames. He was just doing his job. He had gone off to work that morning with no idea that he would be risking his life right after lunch break because some drunk fell asleep at the wheel of a trailer truck.
When I worked the Saturday night shift, the action would really pick up. That was the night for bar room battles and domestic squabbles; either could turn nasty and life threatening. During the years I heard many a simple call for help turn out to be some clown hopped up on drugs and holding a knife at his girlfriend’s throat. Or a gun to her head. The cops who answered those calls were likely to turn into targets themselves. Frequently these were people with nothing to lose and cooperation was not part of their life style.
I went to school with a woman whose husband had been a state policeman, gunned down when he did a routine traffic stop. She was going to school in order to become a teacher so she could support her fatherless children. Her husband had not known he would never see his family again when he went off to work that morning.
During a hurricane one year, firefighters went from house to house at the beach and ordered an evacuation of the area. A bunch of guys refused to go, said they would be fine; they were going to ride out the storm. A couple of hours later they changed their minds and wanted help in getting out. A volunteer firefighter was swept to his death in the operation that hauled those guys to safety.
Whenever I hear fire trucks or police sirens on their way to a call, I take a quick moment and wish them well. They answer the calls that keep me and mine safe.