When numerous 911 lines start ringing at 5:40 in the morning, it’s usually one of two things: Either the phone system has gone haywire, or something really, really bad just happened.
Sometimes you pick it up to get a busy signal, or static, and the screen lights up with little messages like “number not available”, or “nyah, nobody’s home”, or “fooled you again, fool”. Emergency dispatchers have a special bond with technology.
Then there’s that third kind of call: The ones that are just plain weird.
“Um … we just had an earthquake.”
Oh, great. Another drunk/drugged full moon maniac who needs to spend some quality time in a padded room.
“Look, I went through earthquakes in the military, and that was an earthquake.”
Yeah, I felt a tremor too; I was pretty sure it was my stomach, reminding me it was almost meal time. But I can’t finish a meal without interruption on the job, because there’s always some wacko wanting to tell me we’re having an earthquake in Indiana.
I got rid of him quickly, because my shift partner had taken another 911 call and I didn’t know if he’d need my help. We’d been pretty quiet for a couple of hours before that, but that’s the way it is in the emergency services biz. I call it Murphy’s Law of supermarkets and fatal ambulance calls: Everyone wants to check out at the same time.
So I turned to my partner and asked what his call had been. Looking bemused, he told me someone had called in to report an earthquake.
Oops. That could mean only one thing: something had shaken up a whole neighborhood. Maybe a truck crash, or a gas explosion, or even a train derailment. “Where did your call come from?” I asked. Mine was from Kimmell, and if his was too, that would confirm it. Kimmell was – I mean is – a small town; hardly anyone would notice it gone.
“Avilla,” he said.
Oops. Avilla’s on the opposite side of Noble County, maybe 15 miles from Kimmell. That must have been one big bang.
We didn’t have a lot of time to dwell on it, because the calls kept coming in: from Ligonier, Rome City, Fort Wayne, Skinner Lake, pretty much everywhere. We were forced to the conclusion that the crazy people weren’t crazy, and there had actually been an earthquake. I went from mentally ridiculing callers to trying to convince them the unlikely was true:
“I think a big crash just happened nearby.”
“It was an earthquake, sir.”
“No, seriously – it was a semi, or maybe a giant ocean liner, or a UFO crashing.”
“It was an earthquake, honest.”
“Oh, come on, be realistic.”
A lot of people thought their house was being broken into. “Someone’s kicking down the back door!”
“Does it feel like the whole building is shaking?”
“It was an earthquake.”
Long pause. “A whatwho? Do they allow you to drink on that job?”
The funny thing is, nobody was calling to report damage, or problems caused by the quake: They just wanted to let us know there was one. It’s like some small town resident who suddenly sees a celebrity, and calls everyone he knows: “Hey, you’re never going to guess – I just saw Bill Clinton at the coffee shop! Hide your daughters, then come down with the camera!”
“Hey, I think we just had an earthquake!”
“Well … it’s an earthquake! Um, that’s it.”
Which would be okay, if they were calling a friend instead of 911. It’s like being overwhelmed by calls during a snowstorm, from people asking what the road conditions are and if we’re under a declared snow emergency. The only house in the county that doesn’t have a TV, radio, or internet is Amish, and they don’t have a phone. Listen to the friggin’ news, people.
After awhile the calls died down, and I started getting concerned about where the epicenter was. The epicenter of the quake, not the calls. If it was close, we were dealing with a fairly small event. If it was far away, other parts of the country might have been devastated. Now it was my turn to look for information, but since dialing 911 would have gotten me to me, I turned to the internet instead.
There I found an e-mail from my girlfriend, who was straight and to the point: “Was there just like, an earthquake?”
See, that’s the way to do it – no dialing 911 unless walls are falling down! Meanwhile, for some reason I just found that cute as can be, but never mind.
I have a LiveJournal account, which is kind of like a written journal except that everyone in the world can see it. And isn’t it for the best that I didn’t have that during puberty? But since I have friends all over America, most without a restraining order, I made a quick post along the lines of “Holy crap! We just had a friggin’ earthquake!”
Everyone on the internet knows where I live, because I’m dumb. But the advantage is we can triangulate stuff like this, so within minutes I knew everyone in the Midwest had felt it, while people in California were scratching their heads and muttering, “They had an earthquake, and we weren’t invited?”
As a group, my internet friends and I narrowed it down by location, damage, and who spilled the most coffee. The people on 911 were well meaning, but knew only that their homes shook; that could have just as easily been caused by semis trying to pick their way around the forest of road construction around Noble County. But my Cyber-gang? We had the problem identified, located, and a load of relief supplies on the way before the Illinois Department of Emergency Management felt the first shock wave.
The upshot is that I scooped all the news organizations in the world, including CNN, MSNBC, Fox, and the LaOtto-Avilla Nooz.
I await word from the Pulitzer committee. I take checks.