9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

From the Chair: Accepting the Inevitable: Schedules, Expectations & Things

Taken from 9-1-1 Magazine.com. 8/14/12
Written by Paul D. Bagley, published author of both fiction and non-fiction books, a retired police officer and emergency dispatcher.  He is the past president of New Hampshire Emergency Dispatchers Association.

One of the many problems facing emergency communications managers is that people hired as dispatchers soon forget all that was discussed during their employment interview.  In the vast majority of cases applicants are asked if they have any problem working nights, weekends, or holidays and invariably their reply is an enthusiastic and emphatic "no."  Within a few short weeks or months after they have soloed on the board their attitudes begin to morph away from all that enthusiasm toward a more jaundiced outlook on the vocation.  Suddenly all the glitter of the profession has turned into the drudgery of a job marked by "shift work," and their work product deteriorates in direct proportion to their rate of morph.

From the start dispatchers need to accept the inevitable fact that the job is twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.  True, they're not getting paid anything near what they're worth, and the meager prestige associated with dispatching probably wouldn't sustain a monk.  The fact that emergency dispatching is an essential and noble task doesn't put any more food on the table, make the mortgage payment, or buy the latest CD or video game for the kids.  Dispatchers aren't likely to receive any thank-you letters from a grateful public or commendations from their hierarchy, which is partially why their attitudes begin to deteriorate in the first place.  As dispatchers begin to spiral downward in performance they invariably fall into the trap of believing that working "normal" hours (Monday through Friday between 8:00 and 4:00) is the Holy Grail of the emergency telecommunications industry.  Brother, they couldn't be more wrong!

Dispatchers disheartened thusly need to comprehend that day-watch hours are the same hours worked by The Chief, and if they think they have their hands full coddling that introspective collection of troglodytes assigned to night shifts, wait until they get a load of what's waiting for them on day-watch.  The Chief can whine and cry with the best of them during those choice hours, and he does it with the added threat of dispatcher termination looming on the horizon throughout the entire shift.  As grumpy as The Chief may be when you awaken him by phone in the wee hours, it's nothing compared to how much attitude he can generate during "normal" hours, and there are also plenty of witless non dispatching minions around that help fuel his wrath.

There are good and bad points to every dispatching shift.  Working all night long when everyone else is asleep can be downright boring.  When something does happen, it's usually real.  The public, in most cases, isn't ambitious enough to get up at zero-dark-thirty to play practical jokes: if they call about something it's most likely a real problem.  The boredom associated with infrequent calls can lead to atrophy of dispatcher skills, which is where detailed procedural checklists and agency run-cards prove invaluable.  Since newbies are most-often relegated to the overnight hours, they're also often tasked with doing administrative "busy work" to keep them awake and alert.  Several thousand volts of caffeine apparently aren't considered sufficient by some supervisors and administrators.  Added to the busy work assigned to night shift is the likelihood that staffing will be the thinnest during those same hours.  This insures that when something "real" does occur, the dispatcher(s) on duty will be up to their proverbial armpits in alligators.  Another side effect of the midnight shift came from a colleague who complained that while working overnights he always felt like eating breakfast no matter what time of day or night.  Also, if he got off duty at 8:00 AM and had a beer with his Cheerios he wondered if he should start attending meetings.

Second shift, or evenings, can often be filled with an array of calls from a wide spectrum of sources that keep dispatchers active.  Like third shift, these hours can be absolutely dead activity-wise.  But more often this is the time when the public does all kinds of interesting things: they drive home from work, they cook dinner, they drink, and - of course - they fight with each other.  You can set your watch by them.  Activity tends to be higher and hopefully staffing is as well.  The biggest problem with working second shift is that it can be difficult on family life.  You find yourself sitting at the console when your kid is premiering in the school play or driving in the winning run for the little league team.  You often have to excuse yourself early from family gatherings in order to make it to work on time, and watching prime-time entertainment on television requires programming a DVR so you can play it back at a time to be determined later.

The worst of the evening shifts though are those that overlap evening and early-morning hours.  For many years I found myself working as a supervisor from 6:00 PM to 2:00 AM Tuesday through Saturday nights.  My wife was a school teacher during that time and we seldom saw one another except in the summer and on Sundays.  Another problem with that shift was that I'd arrive home late and couldn't go directly to sleep.  I'd be up for several hours watching mindless television in order to  help dissipate the adrenalin that had built up during my watch.  I would subsequently sleep away most of the morning hours, awaken around noon, eat breakfast at lunch time, lunch at dinner, and dinner whenever I could squeeze in a bite during my shift.  No wonder I grew to be the size of a Zeppelin!

Day shift is not the picnic that is envisioned when you're ensconced on any of the night shifts.  Anytime you need to do something outside of the dispatch center it means using up vacation or personal time in order to do it.  One of the great things about working nights is the ability to run errands and do chores at your leisure.  Being assigned Monday through Friday day shifts may seem like a reward, but it can be a consignment to something considerably less desirable when it comes to actually working those hours.  Aside from the high level of activity that coincides with the waking hours of the public, it's also when The Chief is lurking and when high-ranking department heads are viewing your every move in real-time.  Make the slightest deviation from established protocol and they're on you like ugly on an ape.

Weekends and holidays don't exist in dispatch.  While we recognize that for others - you know, real people? - there are designated days of rest that are regularly observed.  For dispatch these virtually come and go without notice.  Now and then some enterprising staffer will decorate the center with brightly-colored crepe paper, or maybe bake cookies.  But that's it!  While others enjoy the warmth of hearth and home, the embrace of their family during the yuletide, or relish a sumptuous Thanksgiving feast, someone always has to be minding the store back at dispatch.  Even though the shift work in itself can wear on dispatchers heavily, holidays seem to be the real sticking point.  Working holidays is truly a sacrifice in a profession that is already filled with an overabundance of sacrifice.  Low compensation, low public esteem (if any public recognition at all), and constantly reposing under the proverbial Sword of Damocles where you're damned if you do and damned if you don't is bad enough; but working holidays too?

Many agencies add high-test fuel to the mix by rotating shifts in an effort to provide some measure of fairness.  Some dispatchers love this; others can't stand it.  Some industry leaders claim that rotating shifts are more greatly detrimental toward the health and well-being of the individual working them, while others claim it promotes better Esprit de Corp, better understanding of the overall mission, and a fundamentally better employee who can handle any task placed before them regardless of the hours being worked.  Rotating shifts offer some measure of fairness among the staff in that the sharing of perceived good and bad shifts is equally distributed.  This, of course, presumes that the shifts will, in fact, be equally distributed - sort of like presumptions made about communism.  In centers where there is sufficient staff to provide ample coverage on all shifts while accommodating vacations, personal and sick time for everyone, the rotation of shifts can afford the individual dispatcher a locked-in schedule that can be projected years in advance.  This can allow personal planning options and opportunities to be present for those important family events like those little league games and school plays.  This presupposes that future administrators will adhere to what the current administration has established for scheduling and that staffing levels will always remain constant.  My experience has been that every new boss feels compelled to tinker with the schedule to either save money, promote some newly-hatched agenda on staff members who have to work the schedule, or simply to emphasize their power over others.  Whether changes made for any of these reasons are a good or bad thing can only be determined by those who ultimately have to work the schedule.  But one thing is for certain: it is change, and change of any kind for human beings requires adjustment.

Okay, we all know that dispatching is an around-the-clock operation that requires constant care and maintenance.  We know that sacrifice is involved, which is true of many professions in addition to ours.  Why, then, do so few dispatchers make it to retirement age?  Why is it that the expectation of a crappy schedule in the medical community, law enforcement, or the fire service is so much easier to tolerate for new people than it is with dispatch?  Why is the attrition rate for emergency telecommunicators so high?  Just as there is no such thing as a single-cause motor vehicle accident, there is no single reason for this state of affairs.  But among the many reasons our profession has become a revolving door for so many is the sheer number of sacrifices that have become associated with it.  Few people are truly prepared for that level of sacrifice regardless of how eager they may appear at their initial interview.  Accepting the inevitable is likely the only way for anyone to survive a career in The Chair.  That acceptance is often impossible to achieve when both youth and inexperience are involved; more importantly when full disclosure is not provided from the outset.  Maybe it falls to management to be more forthright during the interview and evaluation process.  Maybe it should be more difficult to become a dispatcher.

The biggest issue is, and always will be, compensation.  Since pay and benefits for dispatchers is universally low, it might seem a reasonable expectation to fledglings in the profession to see preferential schedules as an element of compensation.  It is essential from the get-go to provide aspirants with the fundamental understanding that schedule may well be the absolute worst aspect of the profession.  Technology becomes more daunting with each passing day and the list of tasks to be handled by dispatchers grows constantly (if only compensation grew at the same rate).  Schedule is the pits!

When new dispatchers were first starting out with me, I would recite to them a passage from the book Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace.  At one point in the story a high Roman official tells a group of slaves aboard a galley that they are all condemned men.  He ends his spiel by uttering, "We keep you alive to serve this ship...row ell and live."  I would suggest to new dispatchers that when it came to the schedule we are subject to it rather than the schedule being subject to us.  I would repeat, "Row well and live."  Ah, those good old days...when simple intimidation was all you needed to keep the oars in the water.

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