Tiny red and green lights fluttered in a dim room of the Arlington police station. Now and then a soft ring punctuated the chatter -- a doorbell pair of pitches, one high, one low. Less often, the ring was singular and shrill, the kind that brings dispatchers to attention.
Christmas Day in the Arlington Emergency Communications Center: if a creature were stirring, they would hear it here first.
"We've got a gas stove on fire?" someone asked.
"It's possible," replied supervisor Brenda Walters. After 12 years in emergency communications, Walters is convinced there are few incidents beyond the realm of possibility. When the 911 emergency line rings, anything or anyone can be on the other end.
"I was working the night this guy tried to commit suicide," Walters said. "I don't know -- two or three years ago. He turned on his gas stove, did what he had to do, and the place got so full of gas, it blew the windows and doors right out of the apartment."
This Christmas Day, no such crises seemed to plague Arlington. "Any holiday is typically slow," Walters said. "I guess more citizens are home and not out. But New Year's Eve -- that will be total chaos."
Calm, not chaos, reigned yesterday in the emergency center, a long room tucked in the core of the county police station. Switchboard consoles and phones fill one long side of the room; two spider plants dangle from the acoustical ceiling tiles, dying under incandescent bulbs. There are no windows.
For emergency dispatchers, holiday duty is the inevitable outcome of the odds, the roulette of rotation that assigns some people to work midnights and gives others weekends on Tuesday and Wednesday.
In a dozen years, Walters has worked on Christmas, Thanksgiving, her kids' birthdays. Behind her console yesterday was Dean Gallagher, a William and Mary sophomore who works in the emergency center on his college vacations.
"I don't really mind working Christmas," Gallagher said with a smile. "My parents haven't seen me since I was 16 years old . . . . I was asked to work Christmas on Thanksgiving Day. I was here then, too."
The 911 line rang, and Karen Thivierge punched the button. "911. What's your emergency? . . . what's the address?"
She repeated the information to Walters: "Two young guys, looked like they were casing the neighborhood. When the caller talked to them, they started cussing her out."
Walters translated it to dispatcherese: "Two suspicious persons. South 18th and Stafford. Last seen on foot toward Stafford. Abusive language."
Her screen fluttered, and two lines of print rearranged themselves: "46, 47, SUSP. S 18/STAFFORD." Two units, one primary and one back-up, on their way. Walters leaned her chair away from the desk. "Okay. That's that."
Across the room, Mary Hicks answered a 911 call. "Arlington; what's your emergency? . . . Anybody hurt?" She typed "Ft. Myer Drive/Lee Highway" onto a dotted line, muttered to a sluggish computer. "Come on, dammit, go. Go." The screen flickered, and the information blipped over to a dispatcher.
"You know that fire on South Kemper?" Hicks asked. "Fire called in, said, 'It's just the grease on the turkey.' "
Walters laughed. "You can tell the people that never cook at home, because you get calls for house fires on holidays."
William Inglis, a 15-year veteran of emergency communications, scowled at his screen, grumbling. "Husband vandalized the car and the house. Still there. Oh, jeez . . . . "
Two calls came in on a nonemergency line: first Walters' daughter, wanting to know if she could visit a friend and ask her brother Kenny to keep an eye on dinner. Then Kenny, asking if he really had to watch the ham.
"I said, 'Well, just watch it once an hour; if it looks dry, put some water on it,' " Walters said. Her husband John works at fire station No. 4, in 24-hour shifts, and she works eight-hour shifts for five days, then two off, then four on. They celebrated Christmas just after midnight yesterday, seven hours before they both went to work.
For some dispatchers, the worst thing about working Christmas is the quiet. On a good day the calls keep you moving, the hours pass unnoticed. "When you're real busy, it's good," said Inglis. "Otherwise, you'd sit here all day and eat." But the holiday calm leaves a lull for jokes that wouldn't work on a busy Friday.
Early yesterday, Inglis forged a sick leave slip for himself and left it for Walters on the bulletin board. "6:17 a.m.," he wrote on the line. Expected duration of illness: "two days."
In the margin, in tiny letters, he wrote, "Ho! Ho! Ho!"