9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Monday, May 4, 2009

You Gotta Love This Job

Taken from "Notes From the Trenches" January 2000
Written by Linda Olmstead

How many of us are in this job for the money? May I have a show of hands? Ahhh, we do it because it's a rewarding career, right? Day in, day out, this shift and that shift, we put on our headsets and plug into that console to be there for the public and our field personnel. After all, the work we do simply shouts for recognition.

(ahem) You betcha. That's why there are so many reproductions of that charming Norman Rockwell painting of the dispatcher giving pre-arrival instructions at the same time she presses transmit buttons on her console, right? Oh, and those bronzed figurines of the dispatcher, wearing his headset, leaning forward into his console - those are hot items at the trophy store, too! Come on, admit it: little kids tell their parents "I'm gonna be a 911 dispatcher when I grow up!"

Okay, so maybe it's not like that at all. But weren't you proud when you were first hired? You hardly sat back in your rolling chair because of that tangible alert mode, and you jumped to answer the line when it rang - it could be anything! And, it usually was. (wry smile)

Some time during your training period, didn't you wake up in a sweat at home, positive that you'd just "lost" an officer on your channel? I bet you even answered your phone at home with "911, what is your emergency?" more than a couple of times. This is vitally important work that we do! Oh, and the emotional high when a "baby not breathing" begins to cry, or the radio crackles, "No further assistance needed - one in custody!"

We all want to do well. We all want to shine. I suspect most of us have watched one or a dozen of the reality-based television programs and paid more attention to the dispatchers' voices, what they said and how they said it, than to some of the action scenes. Movies, too, right?

Small Screen

Matter of fact, we usually only heard a dispatcher's performance. Not many visual shots of Comm Centers, were there? (At least not until "Rescue 911.") But then those "recorded live" programs hit the small screens and I don't know if any of y'all have had those camera crews show up to ride along with your officers, but when they showed up for a week long shoot at mine, they didn't even roll practice tape inside the Comm Center.

This rewarding job of ours is a pretty thankless one. If you can't engender your own sense of value and worthiness, chances are you're gonna be feeling pretty low now and then. You're supposed to do an excellent job; anything less is usually worth criticism. This isn't a sit-back, put yer feet up, kinda career. We are here to serve the public - and they tell us that on a frequent and strident basis.

Overtime. Shift work. Feast or famine: if you're not slammed-to-the-wall busy, you're bored. Time for a crossword puzzle, one ear cocked for the sound of the phone ringing or a voice crackling across the radio. Somebody walks in about then and makes a snide comment about how easy you have it. (They don't visit when it's busy because - no surprise! - they're out there in the field responding to the calls you're giving them! But what they saw then is what they assume it's like for you: easy street, while they're out there bustin' their humps going from call to call in the rain.)

You can't get that day off you requested months ago and you have to get someone else to trade a shift with you so you can attend your daughter's school play on a Friday night. Somebody else got a day off they wanted. What's up with that?

You tell a hostile reporting party that "we can't exactly go out and shoot the dog so it doesn't bark any more, ma'am," and you get written up for it. Jeez, it's the truth, isn't it? We can't send 'em out there to shoot barking dogs, right?

You Love It

So. You are in this business because you love it. Most of the time. Or some of the time. Or once upon a time. You get really good at it, too. You want to make things better, (face it, things can always get better, right?) so you cram for a promotional exam. Maybe you don't want to promote, but you manage to talk the administration into allowing Comm Center personnel participation in some high-or-medium profile program.

Meanwhile, the phones ring, the radios blare and you go from This Call in That Level of Completion to That Call still in progress as you finish up the last little bit of the Other Call for which you've been waiting to get the field units' disposition so you could close out the log on it. It's a juggling act, fraught with tension and the sure knowledge that there is no net to catch the flaming swords you've got whizzing about in the air.

Yup, there are icky times and some rough periods (especially if you're a supervisor, because then you're in the middle between the dispatchers you care so much about and the administration which has a far different view - and I don't mean a diametrically opposed goal, just a larger "monster" to feed than the "why can't we fix this problem right here, right now?" standpoint of the line dispatcher.)

Act Now

You see, as dispatchers, we get problems dropped into our headsets and we act now to solve them as best we can. Stuff comes in, actions roll out. There ain't no "wait and see" or "let's look this over carefully" going on. (finger snap!) Get the necessary information as expediently as possible and follow through with an appropriate action, chop, chop! That clock is ticking, you know. Four minutes without oxygen and the brain starts to die. Fires double in size every twelve seconds.

Now, Comm Center supervisors, as a general rule, started out as dispatchers. But you know what? Their problems are not the same; seldom is the situation as immediate as those presented to y'all by telephone or radio. (I hazard a guess that most dispatchers are so well entrenched in that "Now! Quick! Don't hold that call!" mode that they think everything is an immediate need.)

I'm not denigrating anyone - I have to deal with my own desires to solve stuff now, this minute. Don't let it percolate, it might get bigger, badder and nastier! That's how I worked for so many years. I want to solve problems as quickly as possible. Can I? Probably not. And it's not necessary, either. Honest.

But try and tell that to the dispatcher-within-me. I take work home with me now, and when I come back to my desk, there's stuff left over from the day-or-week before, that I haven't had a chance to finish yet. Never did that as a dispatcher; ya stay 'til ya finish the call, or unitl you can brief someone well enough for them to take it over at the end of your shift and the beginning of theirs. Unless your geographic area was in a disaster situation, that same incident wasn't sitting there waiting for you the next time you came back on duty and plugged in your headset.

Support Role

Comm Sup job responsibilities are more geared towards supporting their subordinates than they are for the public. Yet, the needs of the agency and the wants of the public certainly affect the manner in which they can address problems facing their staff.

So, now and then I have a sick stomach for awhile, or I have trouble getting to sleep. It's not the sound of the crying baby or woman on the phone that preys on my mind any more, or the 15 minutes between the time a unit failed to respond for a status check and a beat partner located the patrol car upside down in a raging river.

Those aren't the things that bother me when I walk through the parking lot towards the Comm Center. It's the onus of telling a trainee he or she isn't going to make it, or discovering the budget has been slashed again and we're all gonna have to sit in those cruddy chairs for another two years. Or having to cancel Christmas for someone because somebody fell and broke a leg and can't come to work for quite some time - and I'm working Christmas, myself, so somebody else - with kids - can have the day off when we're already short staffed.

As frustrating as it can be, I love this career. There are times when I wish I was a dispatcher again, because I was "healthiest" then - work wasn't taken home (except emotionally, for processing). I didn't have to worry about things like this report or that project or the interpersonal wrangle between this and that dispatcher.

Thankless Job

A supervisor's job is really very thankless, even more so than that of the line dispatcher. Y'all know how seldom folks get acknowledged for doing a good job on the operations floor; well, few supervisors get praised for getting a massive project done that took weeks of work, or for getting up in the middle of the night to listen to a troubled employee and make a decision to bump it up higher so that person gets some professional help.

Nobody claps us on the shoulder for dealing with vendors who point fingers at other vendors and finally the technical problem is solved but only because you had enough knowledge about the system(s) to explain to each of them what the heck was really going on and voila! it gets solved. And so on and so forth.

My partner Comm Sup and I put our hearts into trying to make things run smoothly in the Center. We carry banners into battle with administrators, for our dispatchers. Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose. But, like dispatchers who work a pursuit or help save a choking baby or who coordinate response to train wrecks, we're simply expected to do our jobs.

What's this you say? Comm Sups want recognition, too!!??!! Huh.

Maaaan, I'm whining. (wry chuckle) For all the worry, for all the heartache, for all the long hours and not-so-great-pay - certainly not much of an incentive to promote! - this is still the career in which I hope to stay until they drag my skeletal remains from the Comm Center.

My signature line quote is exactly how I feel, happy to be here, proud to serve. Once in awhile, there's a dip and I'm not as happy as I have been on better days, but I'm always proud to serve.

It Suits Me

More than once, I've heard an angry, upset and stressed out dispatcher say, "This place makes me sick!" on the way out the door at the end of a rough shift. (Rough because of a snippy comment on the air - responded to in kind, or because some hostile caller screamed through the phone and then had the gall to complain when the dispatcher yelled right back. Or when an expected day off didn't materialize. Stuff like that, not the handling of a structure fire or a heart attack or an hysterical rape victim.)

This job doesn't make me sick. But sometimes I make myself sick. Over 23 years in public safety communications, and I've only started to use sick leave in the last couple of years because, frankly, I'm aging and fat and physically inactive and stuff tends to wear out on ya as the calendar pages flutter past. Nobody makes me smoke too much. Nobody forces me to eat meals of dubious nutritional value.

I'm drawn to this kind of work because it suits me. Other types of work are boring; I spent over a year trying to get back into Public Safety Communications when I relocated in 1991. For a year I worked in the private sector. Oh my. At first it was charming; I didn't have to deal with 911 stuff or cops or firefighters or anybody with a radio but that wore off within a month.

I'm an adrenaline-dependent kinda gal.

For new dispatchers who wonder "Is this job going to make me sick?", all I can say is: If it does, develop effective coping mechanisms or find another line of work. Y'all can come into my office any time for Ibuprofen, vitamin C or chewable antacid tablets; I might even have chocolate to dispense. (Sometimes I ask if anybody ELSE has any chocolate to share!)

Just don't ask a Comm Sup to solve a personnel problem in twenty minutes flat or get your headset repaired by the end of the shift. Yah, that's what we're expected to do for you, that's true. But I can't work that miracle. (shrugging helplessly) I do promise to understand it when you snap at a rude caller; I just won't condone it. Do we have a deal?

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