East Side author shares life as a 911 dispatcher

Caroline Burau, above, has been a 911 dispatcher for 12 years in various Twin Cities agencies. Her new memoir, left, shares her experience as a 911 dispatcher, from the sleepless night shifts to dealing with 911 callers on the worst days of their lives.

Caroline Burau releases new memoir about front lines of emergency response 

“That’s both the great promise and the great torture of being the first first responder. The possibility of saving a life,” says Caroline Burau in her new memoir, “Tell Me Exactly What Happened: Dispatches from 911.”

Burau, 43, and who lives on the East Side, was a 911 dispatcher for 12 years, working for Ramsey County, White Bear Lake and a Twin Cities ambulance company. 

Her compelling memoir gives an account of her thoughts, struggles and the lifestyle of a 911 dispatcher, a job which few would argue is easy. 

She shares stories about raising her daughter, the mental health struggles of emergency workers, and the constant exhaustion of working night shifts.

The Minnesota Historical Society Press is releasing the book this month. While the names and some of the stories have been altered to avoid exposing people during difficult moments in their lives, Burau says the book accurately depicts her dispatching career.


Caroline Burau’s new memoir, “Tell me Exactly What Happened: Dispatches from 911,” is available in paperback from the Minnesota Historical Society Press. The 182-page book was released on Sept. 1. 

There will be a book launch celebration open to the public at Common Good Books, 38 Snelling Ave. S., on Sept. 8 from 7 to 8 p.m.

Life on the other side of the phone

“I wanted to be a helper,” says Burau on why she decided to work as a dispatcher. She tried a variety of “helper” careers before applying to be a dispatcher.

Burau enrolled in nursing school but says, “I didn’t quite cut it for nursing,” as blood was something she quickly discovered she couldn’t quite deal with.

She then worked as a news reporter for the White Bear Lake Press. She enjoyed having a front-row view of everything going on in the community but gradually became dissatisfied with the job, because she felt like a reporter was never someone people wanted to have around. 

She talked with her police contacts about what it was like to be a dispatcher and decided to apply when Ramsey County dispatch unit had some openings. After a series of multi-tasking and prioritizing tests, she was hired in 2002.

“I was interested in dispatching because you kind of had a front-row seat, and you belonged there,” Burau says.


A writer for life

Burau grew up and lived most of her life in White Bear Lake. She raised her daughter there and relocated to the East Side a few years ago.

“[White Bear Lake] is a lovely town. It’s unique and pretty and also very historic. I feel lucky that I got to grow up there, and that I could raise my daughter there.”

But when Burau became a dispatcher for her hometown, she encountered situations she hadn’t expected in a second-ring suburb. 

She says, “It was little disillusioning because I have this sort of picturesque view of White Bear Lake, and then you find out that there actually are drugs at the high school and that people get into fights and pull knives on each other in their homes.”

Burau says she has always used writing as a way to decompress and express herself, as she has never been a visual person or artist. 

She jokes about those wine and painting events saying, “Now if you ask me to [go to]those canvas events, where...you’re supposed to paint something? That is my nightmare, because I’m just not a visual person. I just want you to give me some lines I can color.” 

She credits her second-grade teacher with really fostering a love of writing and recalls the little books she created in elementary school, and later on “writing terrible poetry in high school about my boyfriend.”

In addition to her newest memoir, Burau has authored a fiction novel titled “Sugarfiend,” released in 2012, and another nonfiction book published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press in 2007 about her dispatch career called “Answering 911: Life in the Hot Seat.” That book was a Reader’s Digest Editor’s Choice and a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award.

She says it took a couple of years to write her second memoir. She began working on it seriously during her last year as a dispatcher. 

Burau describes it as “a little less ‘Holy shit, this job is hard,’ and a little more introspective.”

While she says she wrote both nonfiction books for the public, she also wrote them for her fellow dispatchers so that they would know there are others who understand their struggles.


The dispatching lifestyle

Burau explains that there is a fine balance a dispatcher needs to strike between avoiding complacency but also not becoming attached to calls and callers, for fear of burning out too quickly. 

She says when a dispatcher became complacent, coworkers knew they were getting burned out and that it was time to move on to the next career. 

She explains, “It becomes easy to forget that [the callers] are people and that these are not usual occurrences for these people.”

Burau adds that after her years as an emergency dispatcher, she has become much more anxious about mishaps than the average person.

“When it comes to horseback riding, snowmobiling or motorcycle riding, I see people doing that and I think, ‘Oh that’s just an accident waiting to happen.’ And that’s not the case at all, but from my perspective it is because that’s all I ever heard about.”

In addition, she says as a result of the stress and emotionally draining nature of the job, she and many of the dispatchers struggled with mental health issues and developed poor eating habits.

But the career has its lighthearted side as well. In her latest book, she says, “’Well, we don’t usually see a lot of blood in dispatch ... I mean unless someone’s stolen someone else’s Hot Pocket or something.’”


The end of an era

Burau left the dispatching world two years ago and now works as a technical writer. In her memoir she describes when she knew it was time to go. 

“I just couldn’t quite see myself in that job in five or 10 years. It just was making me so ill some days. And by ill I mean, mostly just depressed and exhausted.”

In addition, she left the job with a dependency on Benadryl after years of trying to regulate her odd sleep schedule. 

Burau says although the job was tough, she received a lot of love and support from her coworkers, which is something she would never trade if she had to do it all over again.

“I had to try it [dispatching]; I was curious and I had to try it. Even if someone had warned me against it, I probably still would have gone into it. I just needed to know,” Burau explains.

She says there are two things she would recommend to the general public based on her experiences — always be aware of where you are and never be reluctant to call for help, even if it is a non-emergency. 

“I would hate for people to hesitate to call because they are afraid it’s not going to turn out to be anything. And then the reason you are calling is because you don’t know and you want to be safe. So just call.”

To purchase her previous two books, go to www.carolineburau.com.


Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow her on Twitter at @EastSideM_Otto.

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