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Operator Goes Zzzzzzzz in the Night

By Eric Rich and Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 8, 2004; Page C04

The low, rumbling snore has been broadcast across the airwaves and over the Internet -- the snore heard around the world -- and become fodder for television anchors who seemed to delight in poking fun at an Anne Arundel County 911 operator who fell asleep while taking an emergency call last month.

On NBC's "Today Show" last week, Matt Lauer led with this introduction: "Imagine calling 911 when you think there's a prowler nearby, and the 911 operator isn't helping you, but counting sheep instead."

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MSNBC's Keith Olbermann's got in this dig: "To protect and serve -- and snooze? Possibly the one sound you most don't want to hear when you call 911."

But Louis Gerber, the operator who fell asleep while listening to a Glen Burnie woman describe what she thought was a prowler outside her house, said the incident was anything but funny. When he showed up for work at 10:45 p.m. July 28, he had slept just a few winks because he had spent the day taking care of his ailing 82-year-old mother who lives with him in Pasadena. His mother, who has cancer, had a dialysis appointment that morning and then had to visit her surgeon, Gerber said.

He took her to both appointments as soon as he got off work. By the time he got home, it was 5:30 p.m., and he had been up for at least 20 hours. He managed only an hour of sleep before heading back to work, he said. He was exhausted but didn't think about calling in sick. Being tired when you work nights is part of the job, he said.

Then, at 2:45 a.m. July 29, Glen Burnie resident Patricia Berg heard a noise outside her house, like the sound of someone dragging the palm of a hand across glass, and she thought someone might be trying to break in. She called 911, relayed her concerns and then waited. At first she heard nothing, and thought the operator was simply taking down notes, she told WBAL-TV, which first broadcast the story.

Then she heard the now-famous snore.

On the recording of the call, Berg can be heard saying "hello" several times until Gerber finally wakes up.

"I was wondering if you were still there," Berg said.

"What's the problem?" Gerber replied.

"I've already told you. You don't remember me telling you what was wrong?" Berg said.

Police were dispatched to the house and found nothing amiss. As for Gerber, he received a letter of reprimand, which will be added to his personnel file, he said. And police administrators have said they'll look at ways to prevent such an incident from happening again. The matter is under investigation.

Anne Arundel County Police Lt. Joe Jordan has said the police force is upset and embarrassed.

So is Gerber, who has worked as a 911 operator for 10 years.

"I honestly don't know what happened," he said in a phone interview.

"I try to do the job to the best of my ability," he added. "I feel bad about it. I'm not trying to make an excuse. It shouldn't have happened."


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