I used to be a public information officer (PIO) for a large ambulance service. Much of my job involved responding to media queries about “bad calls” that reporters would hear on police scanners. Every day I received dozens of calls about potentially horrible situations, referred to by the industry as “breaking news.”
For more than two years, 24-hours a day, seven days a week, I learned about nearly every tragedy in Oklahoma City that required an ambulance. There was the minivan that swerved to miss a couch that flew off the back of a truck. As it rolled off the highway all the adults were ejected and killed, while all the children, tightly secured in car seats, survived. I heard they were sent to live with family in California.
There was the mother of five who was murdered on Valentine’s Day. Her killer had just been paroled. I felt so bad for her family, especially her mother, who I discovered through her daughter’s obituary. I sent her a card. I’m sure a lot of people sent her cards.
And, I can’t forget the boy who was killed riding a four-wheeler on the family farm. He was having fun one minute and was gone the next.
There were also a lot of suicides. We responded to so many self-inflicted gunshot wounds and on rare occasions, hangings. There were also jumpers, as we called them. These were people who had lost all hope and jumped off buildings to their death. Surprisingly, quite a few people also died on train tracks. People who couldn’t bear to live another day, and so they decided to let a train run over them.
Every city has an underbelly, a dark and illicit side where the street lamps are faded halogen. Here, kids fall out of broken, second-story apartment windows because the out-of-state slumlord neglects maintenance. The children break their bones. Their mothers cry and blame themselves.
In the summertime, when the heat index reaches 110 degrees, the elderly in these same vulnerable apartments have heat strokes because that same slumlord didn’t repair the chiller.
There were so many people I wished I could save. Equipped with news releases and sound bites, the best I could do was give them a box-fan offering donated by a big box store. These were the stories I shilled, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t care. I believed shining a light might prevent the darkness from overtaking them any more than it already had.
The Sun Comes Up
One thing I learned in that job is that every day the sun comes up and many people don’t plan to die, but they do. They die on the highway going to work or coming home. They die stepping off curbs or riding their bikes. They die of heart attacks and strokes. Snake bites and accidental electrocutions. Some are murdered by guns or knives or their partner’s bare hands. They die in Paul Simon’s “poorer quarters, where the ragged people go,” but they also die in rich neighborhoods where the culture of affluence keeps people from reporting child abuse and domestic violence.
Yes, every day, the sun comes up, and that day is going to be the worst day of someone’s life. You know this as a PIO and you don’t forget it when you’re not a PIO anymore.
“Never date a parolee,” I tell my daughters. “Never ride a four-wheeler,” I tell my son.
Every day, I sat in front of my laptop with the computer-aided dispatch populating the screen with red calls, yellow calls, green calls. I’d click on a red call and say a prayer. I’d quickly scan the initial report to see the age of the patient. I always hoped it wasn’t a child. I was always relieved when the person was old.
There was rarely a day during those two years that my life was not touched by a stranger’s tragedy. But, when these days rolled around, we had a name for them: Slow News Days. If you were lucky, it coincided with a quiet, home holiday.
One Thanksgiving, just as my family was sitting down to dinner, a reporter called me. He’d heard a report come across the scanner about someone choking on a turkey bone. “Must be a slow news day,” I said as I excused myself from the table. For the next 15 minutes, I ran interference between the reporter and the medics running hot to the hospital. By the time I finished, everyone was clearing their plates and getting ready for pie. The call hadn’t taken that long, but I had missed Thanksgiving Dinner.
I’m sure my mom was sitting at the table that day, but I don’t remember. I wish I did because she is gone now, living in the heavens with God.
After that job, I went to work as the PIO for the water and trash department. This job involved brilliant engineers and far less tragedy, but reporters still called me on Thanksgiving. They called me about sewer backups because, apparently, a big turkey dinner can put a strain on a city’s sewer system.
The American appetite for tragedy is insatiable.
A Series of Unfortunate Events
After two years in the water and trash job, I moved up (in essence) to serve as the PIO of a commercial service airport categorized by the Federal Aviation Administration as one of “the world’s largest small airports.” That job brought with it the stress of our post 9-11 world.
There were false alarms about pipe bombs and people seriously perturbed for being patted down by TSA. And there were young men, fathers, and sons, returning home from war. Some returned in caskets draped by the American flag, while others were greeted by homemade signs their children made.
A casket in your workplace makes for a very hard day.
Finally, I fielded a lot of calls from reporters about flight delays and cancellations, especially on holidays. On a positive note, not making it home for Thanksgiving is still considered newsworthy in America.
All in all, I spent six Thanksgivings taking media calls about life’s unending series of unfortunate events. Back then, I managed calls and emails on a Blackberry, which a fellow PIO said looked like a piece of toast.