Tell Me Exactly What Happened by Caroline Burau


9781681340098_892e2In her new book, veteran 911 operator Caroline Burau shares her on- the- job experiences at both a single- person call center (complicated by a public walk- up window) and a ground and air ambulance service. Whatever the position, the challenges for a dispatcher never end. Tragedy, boredom, and mind- bending weirdness are constant companions, as her stories- some funny, some odd, some sad- show. A “broken penis,” a case of domestic violence at the walk- up window, a tornado striking a mile away- Caroline Burau handles them all with efficiency, empathy, and humor.

But the job is not an easy one. On top of dealing with life-and-death situations everyday, Burau is shaken by the suicide of a colleague. She battles stress and burnout, knowing that she is truly helping people. She also realizes that no matter how long she is in the hot seat, listening, waiting, and answering 911, she cannot help everyone. Tell Me Exactly What Happened is one woman’s memoir, but it is also a welcome companion for anyone who has needed relief from a stressful job.


Your job can warp you.  My father was an electrician and is quick to analyze the lighting set up in any restaurant.  I was a tour guide in college and can still walk backwards like a pro. (It’s a great way to freak out a group of friends.)

Imagine being a 911 operator and listening to people have the worst day of their lives, every day.

When [Stella] was in her first year, she took a call of a five-year-old girl choking on a grape. “It was book perfect,” she said, meaning the response was right on.  She acted quickly, her responders were on the scene within minutes, and the patient was whisked to the local ER in record time.  Yet she died anyway.  So until the day her only child went off to college, Stella never let Tristan eat a single grape without first cutting it in half.

Not every call is life and death.  There’s people wondering about power outages, noise complaints, and every brand of wtf-ery you could imagine.  Burau puts snippets of exchanges between chapters to give you a feel for the kinds of people that call.

“Sir, is your friend completely alert?”
“No, but I mean, he’s not the brightest guy normally, anyway.”

It’s a harrowing and interesting job, yet removed from most of the actual life saving.  There is only so much you can do on the other end of a phone line, and this book does a good job showing exactly what it’s like to sit at the console, warts and all.

The writing is basic but mostly effective.  I would have liked the through-line and themes to have been tied together more but it works well enough.  What bothered me the most are the times Burau heedlessly runs head first towards something without thinking about the consequences.  She agrees to go on a national talk show but she’s never watched an episode. This fact is mentioned early and is meant as foreshadowing, I think, but it made me put down the book for a while.  “No way is this going to go well.”  And it didn’t.  Not horrific, but still.  I didn’t care for the dread.

I’m sure the author had no control over the cover but it still bothers me – she works at a call center, not in scrubs.  And no one uses those paddles any more, they have thin pads they stick on you instead.  Burau does spend a lot of time talking people through medical emergencies but it feels a bit dishonest.

If you’re in a medical or medically-adjacent field you’ll appreciate this insight into a dispatcher’s work.  If you’re a dispatcher yourself you’ll enjoy hearing from a sister in arms.  I won’t be pressing this book into everyone’s hands, though.

Thanks to Minnesota Historical Society Press and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

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