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White Center home invasion 911 call-taker grateful for homeowner’s calmness

The scene of a White Center home invasion last week. (KIRO 7)

Zoe Birkbeck began training as a 911 call-taker in October, but had been answering emergency calls on her own for less than a month when a 12-minute call from a White Center home invasion tested every bit of her knowledge and instincts.

A 911 call-taker answers the phone and collects details from callers to send to dispatchers, who relay that information to the officers on duty.

This call was about as serious as a home invasion could get, the kind of scenario many people immediately fear when a strange noise awakens them during the night.

RELATED: Homeowner fatally shoots suspected burglar in White Center

An intruder broke the windows of a White Center house at 2:40 a.m. on the morning of April 22. Hiding in a closet and armed with a gun, the homeowner called 911, his voice quaking with fear. While she was still on the phone with the homeowner, she heard as the homeowner shot the intruder, after the suspect burst into the room where he was hiding.

“When that call came in, I had to revert to my training, because I’d never really experienced anything like that,” Birkbeck told KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson.

Very quickly into the phone call, the audio of which has been released, the homeowner’s voice becomes a whisper, getting fainter and fainter as the suspect gets closer to where he is hiding. Birkbeck’s tone matches the homeowner’s as she alternates between asking him questions and providing reassurance.

Birkbeck: Do they know you’re there?

Homeowner (whispered): No. I hope not.

Birkbeck (whispered): Okay, stay quiet. Keep yourself safe. Okay, you’re doing great. Stay with me.

Homeowner: They just broke out all the windows.

Birkbeck: They just broke out all the windows? Okay. We’ve got officers on the way. Can you hear how many people are there?

Homeowner: Yeah, there’s two or three. (The King County Sheriff’s Office was not able to locate evidence of additional suspects.)

Birkbeck said that call-takers are taught that in a home invasion, when the intruder could be near enough to hear the other voice on the phone, a call-taker doesn’t want to bring further danger to the situation by speaking loudly.

“He told me [they] didn’t know that [he] was there; I didn’t obviously want to be shouting over the phone, which, you know, I don’t know if he has on speaker or not, and possibly giving away his location to the intruder,” she said.

Reports of a home invasion can be common for 911 call-takers, Birkbeck said, but not this sort of situation. She had to process her shock while making sure she was asking the right questions for the responding officers, all while still keeping the homeowner as safe as possible.

“It was one of those calls where you don’t really realize what’s happening until you kind of get into it,” she said.

When the sound of multiple shots came, she did not who had done the shooting and who had been injured. Then came the sound of moans of pain in the background. Birkbeck received no response to her repetitions of, “Are you still there?”

“Having 12 shots fired, there’s a lot of ideas running through my head … That minute, minute-and-a-half where nobody got on the phone with me, and obviously hearing what sounded like someone in obvious discomfort and pain in the background, definitely was probably the longest portion of the phone call for me because I didn’t know what was going on,” she said.

As the seconds ticked by, she feared the worst had happened to the man she had been comforting on the other end of the line. What’s more, as she remained in the dark, she could not update the police on what they were going to find.

“The homeowner has just obviously gone and had to shoot someone, so my assumption is at the time that he had a lot going through his mind and obviously forgot about the phone,” she said.

Eventually, the homeowner picked the phone back up. In the audio, his voice appears very shaken at what just transpired.

Homeowner: Please hurry.

Birkbeck: Okay, you’re okay, you’re okay. Did the person that you shot, did he leave, okay, or is he still on the ground there?

Homeowner: No, he’s here, on the ground. He’s hurt.

Birkbeck: Okay, bear with me. Where did you shoot him?

Homeowner: I don’t know.

Birkbeck: That’s okay, that’s okay, you’re doing a great job. Did you hit the other one?

Homeowner: I just had to shoot. I just had to shoot … that was it.

Birkbeck: Nope, I understand, I understand, you’re doing great.

Despite the extreme stress of the moment, Birkbeck was able to keep her cool and act as a calming influence on the homeowner, guiding him through the next steps as he waited for officers to arrive.

She said that she didn’t feel calm, but her relief at knowing that the homeowner was alright helped her.

“You’re taught that if you lose the caller — if you lose their focus, if you lose their trust, if you lose them willing to assist you — you’re not going to be very successful, because he’s the one feeding me the information,” she said. “At that point, his situation is far more stressful than mine — I’m safe in a call center, he’s just shot someone, so to get him to calm down and let him know that everything was going to be okay, I think was important … I can’t even imagine what he was having to go through.”

Despite being someone who “didn’t have much experience on [her] own with a gun,” she talked the homeowner through unloading and securing the gun in the closet so that he would not look like a threat when meeting police, while still making sure the suspect could not reach the weapon after the homeowner stepped away.

Then she told the homeowner that “we’re going to walk down together to the west door” so that he did not feel alone, and stayed on the line with him until deputies arrived. She knew from the conversation that the homeowner wanted to run out of the house, and needed to prevent that from happening.

“You don’t want someone sprinting out of that house, for the caller’s safety, for the officers’ safety,” she said. “So in that moment, where that fear and that relief is coming out of the caller and he’s trying to get out of there as fast as he can, in my opinion, to go, ‘Okay, we’re going to do this together,’ it will calm him down, it will slow him down, and it will hopefully eliminate any possible mistakes.”

The homeowner will not be charged with anything in the shooting, as he was acting in self-defense, according to the King County Sheriff’s Office.

The sheriff’s office lauded Birkbeck for her skills during the home invasion, despite being so new to the job.

She gives “all kudos” to the homeowner for staying with her throughout the call and giving her all of the relevant information she needed to pass on to officers.

“Anyone who’s ever worked in customer service or worked with people knows that unless they tell you what they need help with, it’s very difficult to help someone,” she said. “He was calm, he was clear, he listened to what I said, and at the end of the day, we got the ending that we hoped for, in that he was safe.”

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