They sit in a darkened room, each bathed in the soft glow of a half-dozen large computer monitors, their windows to the outside world, watching, waiting, for you.

Each monitor providing a virtual world into which they stare, watching, listening to constantly streaming sound. Their headphones they wear not connected to music as you and I might have, but instead connected to dozens of radio frequencies and hundreds of phone calls. Calls pleading for help, radio responses and reports from responders … and more calls for help. The constant din of distress. This is the music they listen to, hour after hour. This is the symphony they direct. Music few will ever hear. Music no one ever wants to see.

Always more calls for help, it’s a never ending screaming sound in their ears. A mother discovering she forgot her baby in the car, after eight hours of work, in August. An unknown male body found in a ditch. A house fire. A cat in a tree. A boat sinking. A dog killed a child. A car crash. A drunk driver on the interstate. A kid brought a cookie to school – and it looks like a gun. Another car crashed, this time in to a bus full of school kids. Another burning building – this time it’s the BBQ place – the smoke is coming from their chimney. Stolen car. Gun shots heard. The drum beats on, continuously thumping, the deep dark beat of the community.

At first they listen, then try to calm, simultaneously dragging and dropping the nearest resource on their screen to provide assistance. “Help is on the way and will be there in two minutes ma’am.” Constantly watching the other screens, moving assets to try to fill response coverage gaps, “Unit 2, please move to Rivers and Ashley Phosphate and standby.” Handing calls over to fellow watchmen as the chorus plays, “additional assets are needed at this location.” A man shot himself in his truck. Another has a shotgun in a parking garage – distraught over a bad school grade.  A child stung by jelly-fish. A house broken into. A missing cat. A stolen bike. Another school yard fight. The drum beats on, continuously thumping, the deep dark beat of the community.

No one thinks of them, or the others. The emergency dispatchers, these watchmen. Nor the other first-responders, the police, the EMS, the fire-fighters, or the other dozens who stand on-call, waiting for the call. They stand in the shadows of our community. Not hiding, just forgotten. Out of the way. Some say a necessary evil. A hidden net of safety, waiting. Until something happens, then your call starts their flow of action. The conductor guiding the dance and music of the responders. “I need help! My wife is giving birth to our first child – in our car – with a flat tire!” a couple mouse clicks and EMS is activated and rolling towards them. “It’s going to be okay, help is on the way sir.” My father wandered off and we can’t find him.  A couple fighting – she is unconscious. A robbery. A neighbor too loud. My mother fell, again. I need a ride to the mall. The drum beats on, continuously thumping, the deep steady beat of the community.

In a darkened room they wait for you, to calm you, to help you. Yet sometimes … “I didn’t evacuate for the storm – I’m trapped inside and the water is rising – help me!” a pause before the reply “I … can’t ma’am … the hurricane is still raging, no one can get to you, the roads are blocked, we will try as soon as we can … ma’am? … are you still there?” Most don’t last too long, while their electronic windows through which they watch over you, record the story, the sound of the sonnets echo in their ears, like a bad song you just can’t get out of your head. “The pain is too much” says the caller as he pulls the trigger. The good ones last longer than most. Hoping, I think, every day they can get to save just one more life in the confusing concert of tragedy which plays out on the windows in front of them, every hour, of every day. They arrive for their shift, take their seat, and put on their headphones. My mother died last night, who do I call? My child didn’t come home from school today. I think my cat ran away.  Another body found – an old man this time, might be the one who wandered off last week. Another car crash, single car this time, but no seat belts worn. A plane just hit a building.

Post & Courier photo of Charleston County Consolidated 911 Dispatch Center in North Charleston SC.