9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Thursday, December 20, 2012

From the Chair: The Holidays Approach - Big Whoop!

Taken from 9-1-1 Magazine.com, 12/9/12
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.

There is no time of the year that is more difficult for emergency telecommunicators than the so-called holiday season.  Like everyone else, dispatchers would like to look forward to spending quality time with their loved ones just like everyone else.  Alas, far too often they must set aside or radically alter any holiday plans because duty calls.  Someone has to stand watch all of the time.  It's the nature of the beast; it comes with the territory; use whatever platitude fits, but it ultimately boils down to figuring out whose turn it is in the proverbial barrel.

Communications centers deal with the troublesome task of staffing during the holidays in different ways.  Some centers make the junior members of the staff cover all the holiday shifts in order to grant senior members the perquisite of being able to live a somewhat normal life during those special days.  This is fine if  you've got seniority, but it is down-right lousy if you don't.  Other centers hold a lottery which determines who gets what days off.  Frankly, I'd rather spend my lottery luck playing Powerball as opposed to wasting it on a shot at a single day off.  I know the odds aren't nearly as good, but the payoff is a far sight better than one day with the family.  Still other centers rely upon the age-old method of everyone having to work their regular shift regardless, with no accommodations made for the holidays.  This method follows the old adage: "Sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug."  Let's face it; the holidays can be a problem.

One thing that should first be given consideration is what constitutes a holiday.  Christmas is almost universally recognized within the Christian world as being the big kahuna, with Christmas Eve running a close second (even though it isn't technically a holiday).  These are both times when families and friends come together to share good will and fellowship, not to mention eggnog laced with bourbon if you're lucky, tasteless Christmas cookies that seem to be made of either clay or cardboard, and that mystery of all holiday mysteries: fruitcake.  Even though Madison Avenue and retailing giants across the country have turned this once-festive season into the modern frenzied equivalent of the Oklahoma land rush of 1889, Christmas remains but a single day observance.  All the hype and hysteria used to herald it in is merely marketing.

But what about Hanukkah - isn't that a holiday?  Aren't those of the Jewish faith entitled to their holiday the same as Christians?  If so, should they be given the entire holiday off, or merely a single day in order to maintain parity with Christmas?  After all, Hanukkah is actually an eight day celebration known as the Festival of Lights dating back to the 2nd Century BCE.  Should our Jewish brothers and sisters be forced to pick one of those eight days on which to light all eight candles on the menorah?  ("Oh, wait," I hear you cry, "There are nine candles on the menorah, not eight."  Quite true, the ninth is known as the shamash, or helper candle that is used to light the others.)  Let's see, one day instead of eight - it seems fair, unless you add in the religious aspects.

Kwanzaa is a week-long celebration that runs from December 26th through January 1st celebrating African-American and African Canadian heritage (by the way, why does the term African-American need to be hyphenated but African Canadian doesn't?)  While Kwanzaa is more or less a cultural observance, it has grown in popularity since it was first introduced in 1966.  Even though all culture maintains some religious overtones, Kwanzaa is not strictly a religious observance.

Wiccan Yule offers practicing Pagans the world over an opportunity to usher in and celebrate the winter solstice, but few emergency dispatch centers offer this observance as a compensated holiday.  Like Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, the Yule is a multi-day event that runs from the 20th to the 23rd of December.  Although Paganism is not what most North Americans consider to be a mainstream faith, it is nevertheless, a bonafide religion.  Why then should the Pagan's eight annual observances that consume sixteen days in total be considered less important than those holidays and observances that repose upon the Judean-Christian calendar?  The minority party in the US Congress asks a similar question at every legislative session.

And then there's New Year or, more significant, New Year's Eve.  The actor Billy Crystal put it best in one of his movies when he observed that it's a one-second holiday.  I used to volunteer to work in place of others who felt that ushering in the New Year in an advanced state of inebriation was an important aspiration.  Personally, I've never felt as though a holiday was needed to mark the mere passage of time, but Guy Lombardo and Dick Clark enhanced their careers around it, so who am I to judge?

Holidays, simply stated, are those days that are so defined in  your employee handbook.  Don't have an employee handbook?  Okay: holidays are then defined on your paycheck - when you get paid more for a shift that you worked and you don't know why, that's holiday pay.  It's tough having to work holidays like Hanukkah and Christmas, but that's what you signed up for when you applied for the job.  Included in the pre-employment conversation was that infamous question, "Do you have any problem working nights, weekends and holidays?" to which you, of course, said no.

There's good and bad that's associated with working the holidays.  The bad part is invariably the fact that you can't participate in religious ceremonies or family gatherings.  The good part is that you can't participate in certain religious ceremonies and family gatherings.  This is, of course, contingent upon the kind of religion you practice and the family that you have.  In my case, it was always a hardship to work the holidays; for others, not so much.

The holiday season for me actually begins on Veterans Day.  Odd as it might seem, I worked every Veterans Day from the time I became a veteran until I retired.  Now I proudly fly my US Ensign and my US Air Force flag and reflect upon my days in uniform.  The town where I live has a parade that day, but it pales in comparison to the festivities that take place on Labor Day (another holiday on which I always seemed to be laboring).

Thanksgiving is the perfect holiday.  It isn't based upon religion, nor does it involve any kind of patriotic rituals.  It's held on the same day of the week and month every year, so no one has to consult a calendar in order to reconnoiter when to make travel arrangements.  Families and friends come together and share a fantastic feast after being bored to death by television coverage of the Macy's parade.  Sometime during or after coffee and dessert, there's football.  When the dishes are done, everyone goes home.  Now that's a holiday!

The day after Thanksgiving it's a though someone fires a starter's pistol into the air.  Big box stores, shopping malls, and liquor outlets are suddenly swamped, and calls-for-service in dispatch centers start to climb.  This year the mayhem of Black Friday began on Thursday, Thanksgiving Day itself!  Is there nothing sacred anymore?  Mobs of people pressed themselves up against glass doors in hopes of being the very first to purchase some cherished item; talk about humbug!

Purse snatchers, pickpockets, and shoplifters are everywhere!  The season of Good Will Toward Men is translated into, "Had they not meant to be shorn they would not have been made sheep."  True, there are random acts of kindness that happen during the holidays, but no one dials 9-1-1 to report them.  All we get are reports of crimes from victims, the chronic complaints of chronic complainers, and the empty feeling that comes from witnessing too much human suffering.  Fear not fellow dispatchers!  Always remember the immortal words of Dr. Seuss, "Today you are You, that is truer than true.  There is no one alive who is Youer than You."  Thank heaven!

Despite the often wearisome nature of things that accompany holidays, emergency telecommunicators should take the time to celebrate themselves.  It is a special person who can interrupt their lives in order to serve others; it is a very special person who can do this regularly and on holidays.  It's not just missing midnight mass, or the fun of carving the turkey and enjoying a meal with a family member who may not be around for subsequent celebrations.  It's being able to have that meal but not being able to enjoy that glass of wine like everyone else because of the eight-hour rule.  It's missing the quiet and rest that is often the true value of a holiday.  It's not being there to watch the eyes of your five-year-old light up to see what Santa left behind.

But of greater importance is the knowledge deep down inside that what you are sacrificing in your service to  your community is not only beneficial to society but essential to its very survival.  You may not have undertaken this profession with that in mind, but that's the way things truly are.  Emergency telecommunicators are the glue that holds everything together.  The real test of our worth and our ability to maintain a wide-angle focus is best illustrated during those times when others are focused inwardly; on holidays.

So, yes, the holidays are approaching - and yes - it's a big whoop!  If you're lucky enough to have time off, enjoy.  If you are compelled to make the sacrifice and work the holidays, do so knowing that you are not alone.  You are among a very small and select group of people across the nation who are doing the same thing as you, and an even larger group of brother and sister dispatchers who are fully aware of your efforts in The Chair, and are appreciative of the sacrifices you are making.  Be safe.  Be well.  Most of all, know that what you do matters deeply to us all.  Happy Holidays!

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