Linda Pillow’s voice is low, calming, and steady. Many might call it “a voice in the dark.” And it’s a voice that very few people hope to hear.
“Nine-one-one. What is the location of your emergency?” asks Pillows.
After 15 years of such service to the community, she just retired from Bedford County 911 Dispatch.
She said she always had the “gift of gab.”
“I don’t think I’ve met anybody that I couldn’t talk to,” she said.
Growing up in Hickman County, Pillow’s father was an auxiliary officer, so she found herself always around officers and a dispatch — which was very small at the time.
When they had an opening in 1979, Pillow took the job as a dispatcher. Back then they only required a card certification through the FCC, so the job proved a good fit as she studied at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro where she majored in mass communications and later graduated in 1981.
The job? It just felt natural to her, Pillow said.
Starting off in a time when punch cards were the latest thing, Pillow said she had a popsicle mic and foot petal and a couple buttons to push. And it was all talking.
“Back then they used microfilm to look up tags and things like that.” Anything other than that, you had to go to a larger county.
“If you heard the tornado sirens that was my fire alarms back then. I had a little button and I sit there and go ‘woo,’” Pillow recalled.
“So, if we had a fire anywhere in the county, I sit there and do my woo-woos.”
To say the least, technology has changed “massively,” and in many ways, for the better.
“Back then everything was hand-logged. We wrote everything down — we had to.” (Pillow gave an emphasis on the ‘everything.’) “My 911 screen was a little green screen with white lettering on it, and when the call came in, you got what information you could read on the green screen, and you logged it down.”
She said she had two ambulances to cover for the whole county — one went east and one went west. It worked — for a county of 20,000 people.
Today, dispatchers can track callers and vehicles more easily with the internet and social media to help. And most phones are phase II, which means you can see a ping of the map when they call 911, and from there dispatchers can triangulate where the phone call came from.
But sometimes, finding someone’s location isn’t all that easy as the clock ticks on past crucial minutes.
“For instance, this one guy was coming from Columbia in the middle of the night, had a wreck, and somehow his truck ended up in the river, upside down on top of him. He couldn’t get out of the truck. He didn’t know where he was on the highway; it was foggy, in the middle of the night. So, the only thing I could think to do, I sent fire trucks to where I thought he was on different roads that could possibly have this scenario, where there’s a bridge low enough, he could end up in the water. I got him on the phone until I could hear the siren. We found him and got him out. You just have to think on the fly some of the time.”
Pillow ca me to Shelbyville in 2006. In between that time, she worked at Shelbyville Parks and Recreation and for the state for a while. But she always kept coming back to her dispatcher job.
“My saying has always been that if I ever had to call 911, I wouldn’t want me on the phone,” she said. “You get to deal with people at their most horrific times of their lives. They don’t call 911 for nothing.”
Always on high-awareness as these girls are — she said, pointing to the other dispatchers — you sit here and every time that phone rings, you never know what’s going to be on the other end of the phone.
Gunshots, suicides, stabbings, and burnings have all been things Pillow has heard over the phone.
“I’ve been on literally with people who have burned in house fires, in car fires, and you’re the last voice they’re talking to.”
Hers is the voice in the dark.
“You’re on that phone, you’re that first responder. You get the screams, you get the uncontrollable emotions. If you’re able to calm it to a point where you can actually get them to assist you to help whoever needs help — that’s awesome,” Pillow said.
But, “What’s the best is the most challenging.”
You’re constantly being trained, Pillow said. CPR, First Aid, Telecommunications, how to run tags and warranties.
And you’ve got to have common sense.
“People come in and think it’s a clerical job until they start training, and they realize if you don’t do something right, you could cause somebody their life.”
Even with the pressure, Pillow still says, “I’ve never had a moment that I consider ‘nerve-wracking.’ I guess just from years having things under my belt. There have been times things have gotten to me, but ‘nerve-wracking’, no.”
Know when to quit
But part of the reason why Pillow can say, “I wouldn’t do a thing different,” is because she knew when to get out of the seat―both daily and for retiring.
Her moment was a couple months ago as she listened to a lady pray for her husband who had just had a horrific accident. Pillow said she knew at that moment that she’d done it long enough and heard it long enough.
“You have to learn to leave it here,” Pillow said.
Sitting in the chair for 12 hours (from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m.) since she worked the night shift), Pillow would work seven days straight and then have seven off. The night shift helped her to still have time to raise her kids, a son and a daughter, and attend their softball and baseball games.
“When that last whistle blew, everybody knew I’m headed to work,” Pillow said.
But now in her retirement, she can just focus on watching her grandchildren's games without having to be a voice in the dark.
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