On the Front Line: Calling 911


When someone calls 911, all too often they’re calling because someone has overdosed.

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“Most opioid-related calls start off with ‘So-and-so is not breathing, they’re having an overdose, get somebody here now,’” says St. Louis County 911 dispatcher Ryan Stauber, a Local 66 steward and negotiator.  “That’s where our job really picks up.”

Stauber and his co-workers cover the biggest geographic county east of the Mississippi, bigger than Rhode Island and Connecticut combined. Trying to get a location can be challenging when the caller is under the influence, and distracted and horrified by seeing their friend OD. During a recent call, all the caller could do was repeatedly yell the name of the woman who had overdosed.

 “Sometimes you’re giving CPR instructions because there’s literally nothing else you can do,” Stauber says. “You know in the back of your mind someone’s got to get there with Narcan (a medication that can reverse an opioid overdose). That’s what will save a life.”

He says St. Louis County, which includes Duluth, is experiencing an increase in overdoses and in people cutting drugs with fentanyl, making them even more dangerous. Opioid addiction is so powerful, he took calls about someone overdosing twice during a single shift.  There’s been a corresponding rise in bizarre calls, people who exhibit odd behavior and who flee from police and medical attention.

Addiction affects everyone, he says.

“We’ve had 65-year-old women overdose. We’ve had young adults overdose. It doesn’t exactly follow any sort of income distribution or race. It literally affects everyone in the city. We’ve had people who leave behind families.”

Those are the calls Stauber finds most difficult: the people who die and leave behind children or pets, or even had children in the house when they overdosed.

“If you go through life listening to people die on a regular basis, I’m sure it will have some effect on me,” he says, adding that there are in-house and law enforcement support groups that can help workers. “As a dispatcher, you learn to remove yourself as much as you can from those situations or it will eat at you.”

Unless a call makes the news, dispatchers don’t typically know what happens. Stauber likens dispatch to chapter two in a book: “We get the conflict, we don’t get any of the resolution.”

He says it feels good to do work that is so essential.

“The public service job we do is rewarding in its own right,” Stauber says. “You get to hear those rare calls where someone gives birth on the way to the hospital or comes back to life if they’ve been drowning and were able to be resuscitated. It’s those rare wins that remind you it’s worth it.”

Our series "On the Front Line" examines some of the many ways AFSCME Council 5 members are helping to fight Minnesota's opioid crisis.

Read the full series:

The Drug Treatment Counselors

Helping Moms and Babies

The First Line of Defense

The Probation Officer