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From the Chair: Gripes, the Dichotomy of Dispatch, and the Sacred File
Author: Paul D. Bagley
Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
In the latest installment of "From the Chair," Paul takes a detour to discuss - perhaps rant might be a better word - his personal experiences in the dispatch center that were a constant source of aggravation. And the culprits? His own colleagues. The article is written humorously, but makes some important observations about the nature of the people who occupy the chair. You will certainly recognize the characters he describes, as they may be sitting right next to you; perhaps even the one you see in a mirror.
I don’t know about your emergency telecommunications center or about your fellow dispatchers, but the housekeeping at one center with which I’m intimately familiar was the absolute worst! I’ll grant that emergency dispatchers, unlike civilians, usually have a legitimate excuse for things sometimes falling into disarray. The moment you get involved in preparing a meal, or cleaning up after that meal, an emergency line rings or a field unit starts screaming for backup because someone egged his cruiser. Distractions are the essence of things in the 9-1-1 world. But a lack of tidiness due to heavy traffic doesn’t need to become a lifestyle. Nor should it be relegated to agency SOP (standard operating procedure).
It’s easy to be in the middle of reheating your leftover tuna casserole in the microwave when suddenly you get a frantic 9-1-1 call. You rush to the phone and handle the call, and you’re not able to get back to your meal until it has completely cooled off. You just throw the timer on for another 30 seconds and start over again, right? The problem in our center was exemplified by those who would try to heat up leftover spaghetti or pizza. They’d set the timer for some ridiculously long period (like 5 minutes), and crank the output on the highest level in the hope that it would cook “quickly.” As soon as the light in the radar oven would illuminate, a hot phone call would come in, and when that dispatcher returned to fetch their meal they’d find that it had literally exploded all over the inside of the microwave. The rest of us would be picking the remnants out of the vent holes for months afterward, and no matter what you heated in that oven from then on – even a cup of tea – there was a lingering taste of stale marinara sauce.
There were also those who’d employ the same logic to heating up food in a toaster oven. These people were the true brain trust of our communications center. Twice they set the toaster oven on fire and nearly burned down the building. The custodian for the building in which we were located revoked our toaster oven! Unless your kitchen facility (presuming you have one) is within eye sight of your console, your center runs the risk of similar mishaps, unless, of course, you have more than one person on duty at the same time. Having multiple dispatchers eliminates the frequency of these kinds of accidents, but it doesn’t eliminate them altogether. After all, there is still the human element, even among dispatchers (i.e.: the previously-mentioned brain trust). The simplest solution to this problem for any center is to comply with federal labor standards and allow dispatchers to take their meals removed from their work station; say, in a lunchroom? But we all know how likely that is to become a universal reality.
Another gripe of mine was the condition of the kitchen sink. It is my contention that the sink is community property and belongs to everyone equally. Therefore, no one person had the right to commandeer it for any length of time. Yet, a few fellow dispatchers would dump their dirty dishes and cooking implements in the sink, splash some water on them, maybe even squeeze some dish liquid onto the pile and simply walk away. Their argument invariably was that they were, “letting them soak,” and they would wash them up and put them away at the end of their shift. Of course, when the end of their shift came they would quickly beat feet out the door like a scorched cat, forgetting all about their mess. For a while, I would wash up the dishes and put them away... for a while.
How does the old saying go: the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result? The time had come to throw some curve balls. As the eldest statesman of the center I declared that anything found sitting in the sink more than twenty-four hours would be dumped in the trash. Some failed to heed my warning. At first I just placed the soiled implements on the counter near the sink and hoped that the slobs would take the hint. They didn’t. Instead they just used more of the clean things and piled them in the sink like the others.
I then began placing dirty dishes, pots, pans and cutlery into a trash bag and placed it on the floor next to the trash container. Apparently no one other than the custodian noticed. The bag sat there for a few days and finally he asked if it was trash and I replied, “Apparently!”
Within a month we were literally down to a single knife, fork and spoon, a drinking glass that was actually an old jelly jar, a variety of old Tupperware? containers and lids that had been left behind after transporting food from home, and an array of coffee mugs, some of which dated back to the Coolidge Administration. My subordinates griped and grumbled about my actions and anointed my locker with the moniker G.O.D. (Grumpy Old Dispatcher). They lamented that I had thrown away perfectly good dinnerware because one of them hadn’t gotten around to cleaning things up right away. Right away? How about a week?! An entire week with a sink full of dirty dishes and pans, and all they did each time they walked into that galley was toss additional stuff on the pile.
When I was a kid one of my chores was cutting the grass. One fine summer day I was doing the lawn and walking behind a rotary lawn mower with bare feet. Yes, yes, I hear you: what an idiot! But, I was twelve and common sense wasn’t part of my original issue of equipment. At any rate, as I walked along, my foot suddenly plunged into a hole in the ground that was the home of a family of rabbits. Mama rabbit had recently given birth to a bunch of babies and as this giant toe came thrusting into her domain, she did what any good mother does to protect her young; she bit it! Now the moral of the story is that I don’t consider all mother rabbits to be man-eaters as result of that episode. Neither do I consider all dispatchers to be natural slobs... just some of those with whom I worked.
I gladly offer the benefit of the doubt to those who occasionally get dragged away from their good intentions in the kitchen by the demands of the profession. It’s happened to all of us. But after a couple of days all those good intentions turn into the crusty remains on the edge of the plate or a moldy case-hardened sludge that needs to be jack-hammered out of the bottom of the saucepan. Clean as you go should be the operative motto!
Of course the other solution to eliminating a dirty galley is take-out food. Usually take-out food (actually, I like the British term better: take-away food) comes in its own container that serves as a plate, a bowl, or whatever. Even the waxed paper wrapper on a submarine sandwich can be spread out on the console and act as both plate and placemat. Doing the dishes after a meal is simply a matter of wadding up the wrapper and tossing it in the waste basket. The problem with take-away is nutrition. While it may taste great, it’s likely to be the most salt and fat-laden meal a dispatcher can consume.
Shifting gears somewhat for a moment: despite the advent of computerization in dispatch, hard-copy files of some things remain essential for doing business. Decades ago I created a simple and effective way to keep important hard data handy. I got The Chief to shake loose of some money and I purchased some industrial-strength catalog racks – the kind you see in auto parts stores – and dedicated a section of each rack to the various towns for which we dispatched. All the data for each department in that jurisdiction was included – police, fire, EMS, public works, emergency management; even town government. I also created what came to be known as the “Front Pages” which contained a quick check-list for calling in a helicopter, phone numbers of every agency imaginable within a hundred miles; all broken down into types of service. The best part was that the whole thing was completely portable. Sure it was heavy, but if the building caught fire and we had to evacuate to another site we could scoop up one of the racks and take all the information, run cards, protocols, etc. with us.
We also maintained "The Sacred File" folder that was safely stored in the bottom drawer of one of the consoles. From the very first day of training, new dispatchers were instructed that in the event of an emergency evacuation of the building it was their solemn duty to take one of the racks with them, along with The Sacred File. The Sacred File contained all of the take-out menus for every restaurant and fast-food joint within reasonable driving distance (and a few located beyond reasonableness). As new menus were published we’d note the date on the top of the new and toss out the old one. If someone found discount coupons in newspapers or magazines for any of the area restaurants, they’d cut them out and put those in the file for others to use. It turns out that The Sacred File was the best-kept and most up-to-date file in the entire communications center. I don’t believe dispatchers were as fastidious about their payroll records as they were at keeping The Sacred File.
Something else, of which I’ve been guilty myself, seems to pervade our entire profession. We can think clearly and act decisively in mere nanoseconds when life-threatening emergencies confront us. We can deal with screaming mothers who are frantic about a sick child, merchants who are demanding police action after they’ve been robbed, and field commanders who require a flotilla of additional apparatus at the scene of a major mutual-aid structure fire. How come it takes us hours to decide from which take-out place we’re getting lunch?
All of these conflicting conditions in dispatch present quite the dichotomy. On one hand is a group of extraordinary people who handle crisis after crisis without flinching and who never miss a beat. On the other hand, these same stalwart individuals are sometimes incapable of cleaning up after themselves or of making even the simplest decision about where to get lunch. They can meticulously maintain The Sacred File, but they can’t put away the dishes. How do you explain this?
Yes, we emergency telecommunicators are a strange group in many ways. We deal with pain and heartache constantly, yet we chortle at human suffering with our unique form of gallows humor. We understand it takes time and effort to restore a fire engine or an ambulance to serviceable condition after a heavy call, and we grasp the need to do it, yet many of us fail to see the need to clean up after ourselves.
One last thing that’s included within our penchant for dark humor involves the weird nicknames many of us give each other. One youngster I worked with enjoyed the new flavors of Mountain Dew (the most caffeine-laden soft drink on the market). He especially liked the bright blue colored version, and this begot him the nickname Broke Back Mountain Dew. Another was given the name Alaska, because Alissa was apparently too hard to pronounce. Go figure!
Yep, those of us who sit in The Chair are really something! We are the personification of the term, “irreconcilable difference.” As for Grumpy Old Dispatcher – GOD... I actually like it!
Paul D. Bagley is a 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, and he is editor and publisher of the association’s monthly newsletter, “The NHEDA Broadcaster.”
"From the Chair" is produced for 9-1-1 Magazine by 911Lifeline, a national 501(c)(3) membership association providing services for 9-1-1 telecommunicators, assistance to the media, and public education programs. For more information visit http://911lifeline.org.
break room image modified from a photo posted at http://northamptonmedia.com