Like many people, on Feb. 14, 2008, I was at work when I heard there was a shooting occurring at the NIU campus. However, unlike most people I was on the second floor of the DeKalb municipal building, packing up my desk and saying goodbye to friends as I prepared to leave the place I had worked for the previous four years.
As I ran down the hall, I saw the Chief of Police, and asked to “plug in” - to grab a headset and answer the calls flooding the police department. I had been a 911 dispatcher for the City of DeKalb for 3 years prior to being promoted, and I knew my skills were needed.
I didn't yet know former NIU student Steven Philip Kazmierczak had sprayed a lecture hall with bullets about 3 p.m., killing five and wounding 19 before taking his own life, as the Chicago Tribune later reported. The attack lasted about seven minutes, but it started some of the most intense hours of my life.
The shooting at NIU impacted me on multiple levels. Before graduating NIU in 2002, I had taken numerous classes at Cole Hall. I can still see the chairs in my mind, and the layout of the building. As a former 911 dispatcher, I saw the emergency unfold and knew what my part in this could be- to take the non-critical calls transferred to me so that the other dispatchers could concentrate on handling the emergency calls flooding the department.
On a personal level, I saw friends and colleagues, people I knew well, race to NIU to face the most dangerous of situations. There was an unknown gunman, or potentially gunmen, and innocent people were being hurt or killed. They needed to figure out who the bad guys were quickly, or more people would die. And each officer who responded had families, many with young children, who needed them to return home safely that night.
The pictures that night on all the news channels? It was so strange to watch CNN and know most of those officers and their families.
I’ve been asked about that afternoon a few times, and it is so difficult to describe. Police train constantly for a situation like that, and it was amazing to see that training click in. Each of us knew our parts, and there was a satisfaction in watching all of us work together seamlessly to handle that crisis. At the same time that day was incredibly difficult. As the world watched events unfold, I was literally one of the first people that knew that numerous college kids had lost their lives that afternoon in Cole Hall. One of our country’s worst nightmares had just come true.
I still have such a sense of pride to be associated with the officers who responded that day. I did not see one officer hesitate to face a situation where they could be hurt or killed, because they were upholding the promise they had made-to serve and protect. Enforcing traffic laws, etc. is part of the life of a cop, and sometimes it’s hard to not get frustrated when you are on the receiving end of that ticket. But their primary role is to face the nightmares we don’t want to face, so we can live our lives knowing we are protected. They deserve our respect for that.
All law enforcement personnel, from command staff to patrol officers to 911 dispatchers, receive huge amounts of training to handle situations like the NIU shooting. Realistically, most departments will never have to implement that training. The DeKalb Police Department, NIU Police Department, and other area law enforcement agencies did.
At times there are rivalries between police departments. That day those disputes were put aside and the involved law enforcement agencies worked together as one. To be part of that team was an incredible experience, and revealed to me the power of a group, working together for a common purpose. We did together what none of us could have done alone, and more tragedy was averted as a result.
But the biggest thing I learned that day is the power of compassion. I’m a “fixer” by nature, and as a 911 dispatcher I had been able to fix. I gave medical instructions over the phone for the person with a possible fracture until the ambulance got there. I sent the nearest squad car over to a domestic dispute. I sent the fire department to the house to extinguish the oven fire.
That day I couldn’t fix it. I talked to countless parents petrified about the fate of their children. I had very little information to give, and what little I knew I couldn’t share until the information was confirmed. All of the “tools” I routinely used didn’t work in this situation. Those parents were forced to wait for a call from either an official confirming their worst nightmare or with the sweet voice of their child on the other end. I couldn’t change that.
All I could give them was what I had. Me. A few moments of my time. What reassurance I could. And as we talked, I could see the difference in how they were feeling by the end of the call. I couldn’t and didn’t fix it, but I actually felt like I was sitting right next to them, talking them through what was going on. They seemed to feel that too, and I’m still amazed how much it helped. I discovered sometimes you don't have to do anything- it's enough to just be there in the moment, sharing the fear, anxiety, and pain.
I will forever remember the power of concern, empathy, and hope in the middle of the darkness.