9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

From The Chair: The Chair Itself

Taken from 9-1-1 Magazine.com
Written by Paul D. Bagley, published author of fiction and non-fiction books, a retired police officer and emergency dispatcher.  He is the past president of New Hampshire Emergency Dispatchers Association, and he is editor and publisher of the association's monthly newsletter, "The NHEDA Broadcaster."

Okay, we've spent some time and ink describing what dispatching is all about.  We've talked about the level of stress that goes hand-in-hand with the job.  We've discussed the lack of appreciation or even recognition from those whom we serve and those whom we dispatch.  We've mentioned some of the emotions and the dynamics that are significant elements of an emergency telecommunications career.  We've even explored some of the medical issues that have become somewhat commonplace in our vocation.  What we haven't talked about in this column entitled "From The Chair," in any length, is the furniture; specifically: the chairs themselves!

In a recent column I mentioned how a colleague colorfully described the job of dispatching as a vocation where an inordinately high percentage of those of us in the profession are likely to be wearing king and queen sizes.  That being the case, why do so many of The Chiefs still insist upon buying disposable chairs for the dispatch center?  I had one chief so cheap that he not only bought several chairs at a time so he could get a bulk discount (each for under $50.00 from an office supply outlet), he bought them unassembled so he could save a little bit more money.  He would then put on a formal display of his lack of mechanical acumen or, worse, call upon one of us to either assist him or do the assembling ourselves.  Knowing that these "chairs" as he called them would soon self-destruct under the rigors of dispatch it was like asking inmates on death row to assemble their own electric chairs.

In the space of a single year that center chewed up all the toy seating The Chief purchased like a school of piranha chowing down on a full side of beef.  It's not that the telecommunicators are naturally destructive people - they're not.  It's that chairs are made of moving parts, and any machine with parts that move will experience wear and tear.  The cheaper the parts, the faster the machine deteriorates.  When a chair is occupied twenty-four hours a day, often by individuals who are above average in width, breadth and girth, it needs to be designed to handle the load.  Even "normal" sized dispatchers exert above-normal stresses upon a chair because when the fur flies and the proverbial spaghetti hits the fan there is no time for them to consciously think about how they are moving around behind those consoles.  Reaching for a reference manual, stretching to push the transmit button, or extending to grab a ringing telephone, one does not consider the furniture; they just act.  If the furniture isn't designed to go with the flow of the dispatcher it will literally crumble  under the pressure.

Chairs that can do the job properly are not cheap, and they certainly aren't found on sale at the local discount office supply store.  Good dispatch chairs are rated for twenty-four hour use, and they carry a maximum load assurance right on them; usually 500 pounds or greater.  The office supply chair that carries a weight rating above 250 pounds is rare, and "task" chairs are the worst of these.  The Chief thought he was doing us a favor by getting armless task chairs with mesh backs.  His logic was we wouldn't sweat so much having all that air movement around us.  Nonsense!  You can sweat just as much in a mesh chair as you can in a leather one.  As for mesh itself, that's kind of a personal thing.  Wool or nylon fabric, vinyl or leather coverings are personal variants that are a matter of taste and budget.

Task chairs - no matter what the brand or style - have a five-point base.  It is impossible to emphasize how useless these chairs are in a communications center environment.  Six-point bases are only a slight improvement.  The moment a full-sized dispatcher attempts to recline in these chairs in an unconscious effort to obtain something from behind them, or after enduring a busy spell and a good healthy stretch is long overdue, they will find themselves on the floor wondering why The Chief has it in for them.

The minimum number of points for the base of a dispatcher's chair is seven.  Seven or more casters on the floor allows for smooth movement across a tile, wooden or even carpeted floor without worry that the base will somehow slip out from under the occupant.  It's a stability issue, pure and simple.  The test of any dispatch chair should be for the largest member (or even potential member) of the staff to sit in the chair with the seat up as high as it will go.  Once in this position, the dispatcher then unlocks the back of the chair allowing it to recline rapidly.  If, upon reaching the full extent of the relining length, the chair remains squarely positioned on the floor, it's a keeper.  If said dispatcher winds up staring at the ceiling after the back of their head has come in sharp and sudden contact with the floor, it's a task chair and should be discarded from consideration immediately.

Chairs are like automobiles.  Manufacturers of both devote more time, better materials and more labor to the higher end of their product line.  Purchasing a car off the showroom floor you receive what is available.  Special ordering a car gets you exactly what you want.  Chairs are no different.  Without trying to offend animal-rights individuals regarding the use of leather in manufacturing, I will say that I have found cars and chairs that are crafted with leather tend to get more attention from the craftsmen than their fabric counterparts, and they tend to last longer under a variety of adverse conditions.  The material known as Naugahyde? might be considered a fairly reasonable substitute given its leather-like appearance and its long-wearing properties, and it usually runs a little cheaper than leather.

Oddly enough, one of the primary gripes of dispatchers has always been the furniture.  The radios and telephones don't need to be mounted in consoles they can sit atop an old wooden counter top that is three inches above a normal counter height.  The center can be cramped with barely enough room in it for changing your mind let alone changing a set of old reel-to-reel recording tapes because the department has yet to upgrade to digital logging technology.  But the chair in which that dispatcher sits must be suitable to the task at hand.  This rules out all of those bargain-basement specials that look so good on the glossy print circular from the office supply store, or those tiny little photos that show up on the store's website.

What The Chief needs to grasp is something fundamental to the workplace known as "dispatch:" the person seated in the communications center is the only priceless thing in the room.  Police chiefs don't think twice about providing comfort to their officers who patrol in cars.  The radios, light controls and laptop computers are routinely positioned to provide comfort and ease-of-use while on patrol.  Even climb into the cab of a modern fire truck or ambulance?  You'll find accoutrement's and comfort galore.  Yet, do the practitioners of law enforcement, firefighting, or emergency medical services often spend their entire working shift seated in those vehicles?  Of course they don't.  But dispatchers do.  Why should what is being sat in and where the work is being done be any less important for those in dispatch?  The answer is it shouldn't.

Why should what is being sat in and where the work is being done be any less important for those in dispatch?  The answer is it shouldn't.

One other thing The Chief needs to consider when buying chairs for dispatchers is that workplace nuisance known as workman's compensation.  Junk seating can more readily cause chronic lumbar and cervical maladies than the designer chairs.  For that matter, the cost of treating a head injury that comes from toppling over backwards in a chair that is insufficiently designed and not constructed for use in a dispatch facility must be factored in to the overall cost of the chair.  True, a good chair may well run into four figures.  The chair in which I sit when I compose this column cost me nearly $1,500.00, but it is a dispatching chair that any center would be proud to own.  I will have this chair for the remainder of my life, and my daughter will inherit it when I'm gone.  I've had it now for seven years, and maintenance consists merely of wiping it down once in a while.  Before I bought this chair, I also went through a bunch of the discount versions.

An old sale adage goes, "quality is never expensive."  There is also the old saying that, "a workman is worthy of his hire."  Simply put, this means that good stuff costs more.  While the initial cost factor might seem on the surface to be a good deal, if the goods fall apart after a very short service life and you have to replace them in very short order, did you really save anything?  And an eight or a ten year warranty usually tends to trump a sixty or a ninety-day one.

In the stage play, "Inherit the Wind" playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee described a hobby horse named Golden Dancer that bedazzled the eyes of child with glitz and glitter.  The child wanted that toy above all else, and his father and mother scrimped and saved to buy it for him.  On Christmas morning there was Golden Dancer sitting in the living room awaiting the boy, and he jumped aboard for his first ride.  He had longed for that moment and dreamt of it often with all of his being.  But the wood from which it was made was rotten, the stirrups were made from cheap material and the whole thing fell apart the moment the boy began to rock.  The child's heart was wounded.  Like the glossy photo of an inexpensive office chair in a sales circular, it was all about show and no substance.

The Chief truly needs to be cautious when spending those tax dollars that were so hard to obtain and ask which is more expensive: the high-priced chair that's bought once and which carries no associated expenditures like workman's compensation claims and sick days, or the discount chair that must be purchased over and over again and risks staff injury and/or chronic illness.  Like Golden Dancer, the cost of buying The Chair may be higher than is readily apparent on any price tag.  And in this, another wise old saying applies: penny wise and pound foolish.  Money spent on something good today is an investment in piece of mind for the future.  Besides, the dispatcher is the most expensive element in emergency telecommunications and investing in a dispatcher's comfort and well being is never a frivolous expenditure - it's merely the right thing to do.

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