Tell Us All About It: One of Philly’s Best 911 Dispatchers Speaks

Celestine Stanford reflects on 28 years of murders, rapes, fallen officers — and lots of crank calls.

911 dispatcher Celestine Stanford at her desk inside the Police Administration Building, where she takes hundreds of calls each day. Photo | Christine O'Brien, Philadelphia Police Department

911 dispatcher Celestine Stanford at her desk inside the Police Administration Building, where she takes hundreds of calls each day. Photo | Christine O’Brien, Philadelphia Police Department

911 operators in Philadelphia have a rough job. Anyone who calls these civil servants is either complaining about something or reporting a serious emergency (or making a prank call), and often, lives hang in the balance. So we decided to get one of them on the phone to find out what it’s like. Meet South Philadelphia’s Celestine Stanford, a 56-year-old St. Maria Goretti graduate who has been taking your 911 calls for 28 years. Last week, the Philadelphia Police Department announced that Stanford was one of three winners of the 2015 Dispatcher of the Year Awards.

What is your schedule like?
Well, I work a swing shift. So I work two weeks from seven in the morning until three in the afternoon, and then I work two weeks from three until eleven at night. Five days a week.

How many calls do you take during one shift?
On a Friday night that’s 70 degrees, I probably take 50 calls — minimum — each hour. But for an average eight-hour shift, I would take at least 300 calls, easy. Sometimes, it’s just back-to-back calls.

Is one time of the month busier than any other?
Oh, sure. The full moon is a true thing. And the first of the month, when people get their social security checks and all of that. And when there’s a full moon on the first of the month, that’s bad. These people victimize the elderly, and it’s sad.

And any particular time of day?
I always say that morning is the best time to call the police and get good service. But, unfortunately, the society that we live in, it could be any time. But the busiest is right after dinner, for some reason. People trying to get home, accidents, people not paying attention and getting run over by cars.

You’re heading into the busy season, I imagine.
Yes, the kids are getting out of school, and there are lots of people outside.

How often do you get a call for a shooting in Philadelphia?
On a daily basis, at least three calls. But out of three, only one would be founded. But on the weekend, you might get three to four founded shootings in one night, easy.

What’s the most common call that you get?
Believe it or not, crank calls from kids.

People are still doing that?
[Laughs] Yes. Our job is to request that they not call back, and we ask to speak with their parents. Some kids are actually polite and say that they won’t call back again. I can get five calls, and out of five, three are kids playing on phones. But then adults do it, too. The misfits of the city. People not on their medication, they tend to call 911 a lot. And then after crank calls, second to those are domestics. Mmm hmm, domestics.

Basically, everyone that calls you is freaking out to some degree. How do you keep your cool?
You have to counteract their response to you. Don’t take nothing personal. If they’re screaming and hollering, remember that they’re under stress. When I’m calm, it calms them down.

How do you quickly prioritize the calls and determine where to send the cops first?
You have to ask questions. Is it in progress? How long ago did it happen? Did you see the person that did it? And so a person with a gun, a robbery in progress, a rape in progress, that’s coded as a priority one. A six would be a report of a theft, when you didn’t see the person who broke into your car, maybe it happened last night, and you have no idea who did it. Or maybe somebody dumped trash on your property. That’s a six. But the most serious is an officer assist — that’s an officer in trouble — which is a zero.

What’s the most serious call you’ve ever had?
Throughout my career, I’ve had three officers lose their life. I was actually here for the last one, Officer Wilson. I was working overtime, and I did receive one of the calls about the incident, but at that time, the caller didn’t know it was a cop involved. He was a block away and heard the gunshots.

So if I call you, what’s the most important information you need that many people don’t have?
I need to know where you are. Believe it or not, a lot of people don’t know. That’s the first thing I am going to ask you. If you’re on a cell phone, all I get is that you’re a Sprint caller, let’s say, and it will give you the tower where the person is, but that tower just tells me a five- to 10-block radius.

So how do you narrow it down?
If I see you’re near Eakins Oval, I’ll say, “What do you see? Do you see a statue of a man on a horse?” I am very familiar with the parks, and they have statues and different markers, so I’ll tell you to look for those things. But cell phones are bad. I always tell people that they should have a land line. If you call me on a land line, it tells me John Smith is calling from this address. Just start screaming, and I’ll send the police.

Is it true that if I call and hang up, you automatically send the police?
It depends. My job is to listen and see what I hear in the background. If I hear distress, I send cops. If I hear people laughing, well, I know they’re having a good time, and I call back and say, “Hey, John Smith, your kid is playing on the phone.”

Safe to say that the biggest change in your job over the last 28 years is the technology?
Yes. When I came, it was just a phone, and I had a map. And basically you just kind of went with that. But people were different, too. People were more honest then, and the kids didn’t play on the phones as much. Now it’s an everyday thing. It’s a joke.

There must be a lot of turnover.
It’s definitely not for everybody. I don’t think the new generation will last like we’ve lasted. Five to 10 years at the most. Some, after the first year, realize it’s not for them. Some of them go to training and realize.

What do you do to relax?
Well, I detach myself from it. When I walk out that door at the end of my shift, I detach myself right there. And then I work out. I’m in training right now for the Broad Street Run. And then I also spin. I do yoga. Whatever it takes.

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