Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Last call for 110

On a cool fall morning with a weak sun burning off the fog choking the fields, a police radio crackled.

The voice coming from the radio was carefully modulated and professional, a female voice with a tone that belied none of the emotions surging beneath the surface.

“Washington County to Washington 110,” the voice said.

After no response, the voice repeated the call.

“Washington County to Washington 110.”

Again there was no response.

An American flag fluttered in a whisper of a breeze where a crowd had gathered between evenly-spaced rows of headstones. The silence was deafening, and palpable, a living presence. It seemed for a long moment the crowd was rooted motionless to the grass, unable to move or breathe in anticipation, without even the creak of gunbelts or rasp of starched uniforms to break the terrible hush.

After a while, the radio crackled again.

“Last call for Washington 110.”

This time there was an answer.


Of all the funeral rites conferred on fallen law enforcement officers, none is as moving or heart-wrenching as the “last call”—and this in ceremonies already laden with emotionally draining rituals such as the mournful notes of Taps and the wail of bagpipes, and, in many instances, a military color guard and the sharp staccato of a 21-gun salute. But where Taps and bagpipes are universally applicable, the last call is personal, a radio transmission directed toward an individual who is no longer there except in memory, where the unnerving silence between transmissions is as articulate and eloquent as any spoken word. And memories do not answer.

That’s left to someone else. Finding an individual capable of answering the last call without disintegrating into a blubbering wreck is a challenge in its own right, less science than gut feeling. It has nothing to do with machismo or toughness or courage or any of the other qualities used to denote an innate capacity to face down an enemy or opposing forces or even one’s own demons. Rather, it has everything to do with determination to see something to its bitter end, and, in the case of the last call, the ability to look mortality and unspeakable loss in the eye and to not back down.

It was left to Undersheriff Traci Hattesohl to pick such a person for Sheriff Bill Overbeck’s funeral. Not an easy decision nor a enviable one, she was having a devil of a time until the one person to whom it made most sense to pick stepped up and volunteered.

“I didn’t even consider her,” Hattesohl said.

Joni Wiese, a part-time dispatcher and the daughter of Bill Overbeck, saw it different. “I figured I was a shoo-in,” she said.

The moment of decision had a comical touch. It was almost a standoff, with Hattesohl on one side wondering if Wiese could do it without falling apart (and suspecting herself incapable of the same), and Wiese determined not to take no for an answer.

“I think she thought I’d fight her for it,” Hattesohl said.

Wiese had worked for the department since August. The job wasn’t the fulfillment of a lifelong dream of wanting to work in law enforcement, nor was it influenced by her father’s career as a rural sheriff. What it had going for it was availability: there was an opening and she applied for it.

A dispatcher is the central hub of any police agency. Besides directing officers to emergencies, disturbances or other calls, they answer phones, create logs and records of all incoming and outgoing communications, keep track of officers in the field and relay messages between department personnel and other agencies. Frequently they must provide immediate emergency instruction to highly emotional and distressed callers and do so while remaining calm and reassuring.

At the core of every radio communication is a ten-code. There’s a code for an officer being out of service (10-7), a code for an officer going back in service (10-8), a code asking for an officer to repeat the last broadcast (10-9), a code requesting vehicle registration (10-27). There are codes for summoning ambulances, tow trucks and assistance from other officers, and codes for bomb threats, hit-and-run accidents, false alarms, bank alarms, fire alarms, traffic collisions and security checks. Dispatchers have to know their ten-codes by heart.

From the start, Overbeck taught his daughter the ten-codes.

“We’d play cops and dispatchers so I’d learn my codes,” Wiese said. “It was just something we did. My dad was my coach.”

Every dispatcher has his or her own personal phobia, an event or what-if that fills them with dread, not so much for the event itself but in questioning their own reaction. If they’d be up to the task. For Wiese, it was a fear of having her father killed in the line of duty on her watch.

An Albuquerque police dispatcher once said that a dispatcher’s biggest fear was of having to orchestrate a situation involving an officer down or a high-speed car chase, when a normally placid existence behind a radio console explodes into a counterpart of hell itself. Then one day he was faced with both situations. Point man at the center of a juggling act between competing jurisdictions, officers screaming for help, officers demanding information and relaying information from a chase helicopter to the officers on the ground, he said afterward that he found an inner resolve that kept him composed and organized until it was over. He was proud of the way he handled himself, he said. And then he fell apart.

In the aftermath of her father’s loss to cancer, it wasn’t the bedlam of shouting voices Wiese had to face, but the absence of voices, and in particular, one familiar voice.


After the decision was made, Wiese kept it to herself. She didn’t even tell her mother, Janet, not sure of the reaction she’d get. The night before the funeral, though, her mother learned of it.

“My mom was shocked because I didn’t tell her,” she said. “But she came up and told me I’d make dad proud if I did it.”

On the day of funeral, the choreography of the funeral went through its intricate paces. A lengthy procession led by sheriff’s department vehicles with flashing lights as well as fire equipment from Hanover made its slow crawl from the church to the cemetery. Firefighters and law enforcement officers from a half-dozen jurisdictions rolled in, the former with American flags flying from each truck, the latter with black tape slashed across their shields. A military guard shattered the calm with a 21-gun salute, followed by the solemn chords of a bagpipe.

The moment had come.

At the sheriff’s department, Peg Obermeyer, a dispatcher on loan from the Marshall County Sheriff’s Department and a former dispatcher for Washington County, picked up the microphone.

“I was sitting there thinking, can I do this?” she remembered. It was her first last call, made more difficult because of her former association with Overbeck. She knew it would be hard, harder than anything she’d ever had to do behind a dispatcher’s desk, and she wasn’t sure if she could go through it.

She also wasn’t sure if the radio was working. When she’d tested it earlier, an officer in the field said the transmission was extremely weak.

There was also a sense of pride. If anybody was going to get the honors, she wanted them. Overbeck wasn’t just a former boss, he was a friend and a mentor.

She keyed the mike.

“Washington County to Washington 110,” she said in the calmest voice she could muster.

The designation was assigned to Sheriff Overbeck. After the transmission, she counted off the seconds. She would allow five seconds to pass before the next call.

In the cemetery, with the last notes of the bagpipe fading away, the radio cackled to life.

Hattesohl handed her radio to Wiese. Their eyes met and never wavered but locked on tenaciously, desperately.

At the count of five, Obermeyer repeated the transmission. She hoped on the other end somebody was hearing her.

Wiese white-knuckled the radio and stared at Hattesohl. She knew that if she lost it Hattesohl would, too. Just as she knew that if Hattesohl lost it, she’d do the same.

The seconds drew out into what seemed hours until the strain became almost unbearable.

“Last call for Washington 110.”

Hattesohl nodded.

Wiese answered.

“110 is 10-42,” she said. “110 is gone home.”

Behind the dispatch console, Obermeyer started shaking. It wasn’t until later that she realized how happy she was for being granted the privilege of doing what she just managed to do.

Wiese handed the radio back to Hattesohl. At her side, her son, Preston, broke down and wept, and it was the crack in the dam of their resolve, and the crack spread until it encompassed her and Hattesohl and everybody around them, until deputies and grown men and women and children were blubbering like babies.

Wiese was relieved she’d made it that far before coming undone. “I held up pretty good,” she said. “Until my son fell apart, and then I did.”


Scientists say that some radio waves pass through the ionosphere and continue on unabated by solar winds or the trajectories of asteroids or planets and journey outbound past the ill-defined borders of the solar system and into deep space, where they travel at the speed of light into whatever lies beyond the farthest reaches of the Hubble space telescope. The electromagnetic signals bleed into others and fade and pulse and become ghosted with static but otherwise retain their structure and their message until becoming too faint or lost in interstellar noise.

Memories are like that. At first painfully strong, with distance they weaken and lose signal strength but experience in the process a metamorphosis.

A mike is keyed, an electromagnetic pulse unleashed. A woman plays cops and dispatchers with her father. A daughter answers when a father can’t.

“I figured I owed him that much,” Wiese said. “I made my dad proud.”


cheryl said...

Trying to type through tears.

Beautifully written, Tom.

I dispatched for the Sheriff's Office here and no matter how insane or crazy-busy a night had been, it was always a good night when my deputies went 10-7, 10-42 at the end of the shift.

Very moving. An incredible piece of writing, Tom. You've always done a heck of a job writing about the dead. It's a gift you have of making us find our buried emotions.

Tom Parker said...

Cheryl -- Thanks. It was a tough story to write but it needed to be written, so I did. Through tears, just like with you.

Anonymous said...

One awesome story. Probably one of the best that you have ever written.

Unknown said...

I wish I could say something as eloquent as this story deserves. Guess I'll just say a most sincere 'Wonderful'. Thank you for sharing your gifts.

Your Mama said...

Tom, your mother was shedding tears also. Very moving article.

Unknown said...

Oh, my. You do have a way of capturing things via the written word. Well done, sire. Very well done.

joni said...

Tom you did a wounderful job. I do believe you said this was only gunna be a small paragraph lol. I will hold this story close to my heart and I know dad would have been very proud of what I did. He was always one for helping others and not makeing a big show.
Thanks again and also thanks for the pictures.

Tom Parker said...

Joni -- It was a honor and pleasure to write the story. Bill was a great man. I miss him terribly.

Anonymous said...

I have been dispatching for 16 years and have been asked to do Last Call tomorrow for an officer who was killed in an off-duty MVA. This will be my first. I can't even bear my testimony in Church without getting a little choked up. Please pray that I'll get through this!

Tom Parker said...

Best of luck--I couldn't do it. If it's any consolation, think of the honor being imparted on you. Not everyone gets asked.

Anonymous said...

I've dispatched for 4 years. Last calls are terribly hard if you have never met the deceased. I can't imagine how hard it would be for one of my officers our family.

Wonderfully written.

Tom Parker said...

I can't imagine anything much harder than doing a last call, but what an honor to be able to do so.

Jessie Ehlinger said...

You described that morning exquisitely. Joni you are one brave woman. Beautifully written.

Tom Parker said...

Thanks Jessie--and thanks especially for complimenting Joni. It took nerves of steel for her to do that.

Unknown said...

The amazing part of this story is how proud her father was of her every day. As am I. The man we known all these years was just as amazing as his tribute was .i am so proud of you Joni and I know where your strength came from and this was from your parents. Tom your story was very well done and truly in honor of a great man. I know for a fact he did not like all the fuss but I know of no one more deserving.thank you for this. Joyce(Diederich) Porter

Tom Parker said...

You're right, Joyce, Bill wasn't one for the spotlight. I think he secretly would have thought the funeral a little over the top, but just as secretly have been pleased.

Unknown said...

I was a Dispatcher for the Colorado State Patrol for 16 years. I've been to many Troopers funeral and heard many Last Calls. I could never be on the dispatch end doing this. I cry to this day, every time I hear one.

Tom Parker said...

Lisa--It can never be easy nor something one can get used to, especially for one as close to the action as you. About the only thing as gut-wrenching as a last call is the bagpipes playing at the funeral.