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From the Chair: Dispatching Disease
Author: Paul D. Bagley
Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
A former colleague always claimed that for every silver lining there was a dark cloud overshadowing everything. My fear is that some would consider him a natural optimist. He did, however, make one sage observation about our profession. He often remarked that emergency dispatching is a “big-ass” job. He went on to explain that, “If you don’t have a big one when you start, you’ll definitely have a big one when you’re finished.” As ruggedly put as that may have been, truth be known, any high-stress sedentary job has the tendency to put on the pounds if the individual engaged in it isn’t careful. Because of the many strenuous demands, dispatching can erode the physical wellbeing of a person quicker than hard liquor and illicit drugs combined. We all know that and, to a degree, we accept it. The question is, what do we do about it?
First things first; we need to establish for certain what the primary health risks are and see what the medical community can do to mitigate those risks. At an annual dispatcher’s conference two years ago, a nationally-celebrated instructor of emergency dispatch and I were speaking at dinner and I was taking my evening dosage of prescription medications to control my diabetes. Although he wasn’t a single ounce overweight – in fact, quite the opposite – he commented that he was also a Type II diabetic. Throughout the remainder of dinner the topic of conversation focused on how this disease affects millions of Americans. He commented that in his travels throughout the country he observed and estimated that upwards of 70% of all emergency dispatchers suffered from diabetes. A week or so after that dinner I had a routine meeting with my primary care doctor and related his estimated percentage to her. I’ve never seen her eyes open as wide. She immediately said that if that estimate were only half correct, it would be considered among the worst epidemics in US history.
I decided to find out if there was any truth to that number. I called the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta for answers and I was confronted with a profound lack of information. No such study has been conducted on a sampling of emergency telecommunicators and no such study is being contemplated. So, left with nothing to substantiate or negate the assertion, I decided to find out why the CDC has no idea about this and, more importantly, why it does not want one. The problem with the CDC uncovering such a harsh reality is that the federal government would then be compelled to do something about it. A study alone would cost money. Resolving a problem of that magnitude would cost even more. No one in Atlanta or Washington is anxious to find out either way... it would be cost-prohibitive.
One thing we know without the benefit of a formal CDC study: emergency telecommunicators are, on average, heavier than we should be. Obesity is among the natural, predictable results that come from dispatching. Sitting in one spot for protracted periods of time without exercise, and eating calorie-laden meals sporadically between stressed-filled calls are the primary culprits. Could we eat better stuff? Sure! Could we move around more during our shift? Certainly. But the fact is, many of us don’t, and we need to do both.
The three most-common medical complaints among emergency telecommunicators are (in no particular order): diabetes, heart disease, and depression. How do I know? Simple: I know a lot of dispatchers, and those are the things from which the vast majority of them suffer, myself included. My heart is fine, and I only get depressed when I look at the average pay scale in our profession. But remaining overweight for a number of years assisted in my becoming a Type II Diabetic and I’ve finally accepted the fact that this is a life sentence. I now regulate my blood/sugar with medication, I see my doctor regularly, I eat more sensibly than in the past, and I’m trying to introduce more exercise into my personal schedule. My doctor and I managed to catch it in time and I’m getting healthier with each passing day. The key was early detection and intervention.
Diabetes isn’t limited to those who are overweight – not by a long shot! There are plenty of diabetics who appear to be perfect physical specimens. The same is true for those with high blood pressure and heart disease. On the outside they may seem just fine, but on the inside it could be time to start measuring them for a coffin. The point is you won’t know for sure until you’ve undergone an examination. While the CDC and the government sit on their collective hands and do nothing, we each still have the option of taking unilateral action on our own behalves. Just because Uncle Sugar doesn’t want to obtain data, that doesn’t mean we have to wander about in the dark.
Any government study that would embrace a wide cross-section of dispatchers from different regions of the country would have to take into account a host of variables: climate, gender, age, shiftwork, diet, individual exercise regime; you name it! That data would then be crunched over and over again until it was distilled to an argument where the culpability and liability on the part of the government would be negligible. While that is reassuring to us as taxpayers, it does nothing to help us deal with the currently unidentified perils of our profession. Do we need a government study? Let me answer that by challenging you to simply look at the staff of your communications center. Do any of these factors exist in that staff: obesity; diagnosed conditions like heart disease, diabetes, or high blood pressure; depression? Let me ask again, do we really need a government study?
The subliminal risks of our profession can have dramatic and highly negative consequences if we fail to recognize and deal with them in time. Rotating shifts alone are often cause-and-effect with domestic troubles, because a constantly angry or dissatisfied spouse is among the primary causes of severe depression. The inability to chew your food completely before swallowing it can lead to stomach troubles that, in turn, can evolve into other major physical ailments. How often do we gulp down an un-masticated bite of dinner in order to answer an emergency call? How many communications centers compel dispatchers to eat at their work stations? Should this be the norm? Of course not, but the fact remains that it is. Budgetary constraints are always to blame. Many agencies fail to staff centers at an appropriate level so as to allow people to do what people should do in order to remain healthy. In fact, the same is true for all emergency services. Not only dispatch, but police, fire and emergency medical services tend to bring aboard perfectly healthy people and spend the next twenty or thirty years trying to see how they can wreck their health in one fashion or another.
Dispatchers are hardworking individuals doing their job while knowing that it is not an easy way to make a living. Despite knowledge of the known adverse elements, hidden risks of the profession are being exposed all the time and collectively these make the task more hazardous than previously thought. Many dispatch centers are located directly under or beside radio towers that are cranking out all that Wattage for communicating. Human beings absorb and retain radiation passively; maybe even from those towers. Is this something to fear? Probably not, but we’re not likely to ever find out because the CDC and OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) aren’t likely to undertake a study of it. Things we do know that can harm us are the maladies previously mentioned: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and depression.
The key to solving any problem facing human beings is first to recognize the problem. Before we can garner any understanding of it, we must first detect that problem. When it comes to any of the five physical conditions mentioned, early detection requires a visit to a doctor to properly ascertain what precisely is going on. Dispatchers need to think of it as though it were a structure fire: the sooner the fire it reported, the more likely the fire department will be able to contain and extinguish it. Being overweight puts a strain on all the vital organs, especially the heart muscle. Diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol are half about lifestyle and the other half is heredity. Early detection is the fundamental element in minimizing the impact of any of these conditions.
One thing that exacerbates any health problem, and also generates many ailments all by itself, is smoking. I’m not preaching here, merely pointing out facts. I was a smoker for 21 years, so I understand the addiction. Toward the end I was blazing away almost four packs a day. To counteract the effects of nicotine I was drinking upwards of six pots of coffee each day. Let’s see – I was middle-aged, overweight, engaged in a high stress, sedentary job, consumed a diet where Burger King was considered a gourmet meal, ate at my work station, drank gallons of coffee during a shift, sat in lousy chairs illuminated by lousy lighting, did not exercise, smoked vigorously at the console and worked long hours when the rest of the world was sleeping. Yep, if ever there was a candidate for a massive MI or stroke, I was it!
It wasn’t until C. Everett Coop, former Surgeon General of the United States, identified the addiction to nicotine as being greater than the addiction to heroine that I was able to quit. I stopped thinking of myself as a smoker and began considering myself a drug addict. I still am. I’m a junkie, but I haven’t smoked in over 22 years. The bad news is I’ll always be a junkie, albeit a clean one. The good news is that the coughing and wheezing no longer announce my presence, and I no longer have to excuse myself at a restaurant to grab a fix in the parking lot. Any damage that I inflicted upon myself during those 21 idiotic years seems to have been reversed and doctors who look at my heart and lungs now find it hard to believe I ever smoked. Back then, smoking actually defined me, and it would have consumed me had I not done something about it. No one else can make a smoker quit. Those who smoke have to quit themselves, just as they started smoking all by themselves. Quitting isn’t easy, and it isn’t fun. But the fact remains that smoking continues to be the number one health risk in this country today and the sooner smokers get that monkey off their backs the sooner they’ll be able to deal with any and all of the other health risks of our profession from which they may suffer.
Whether or not dispatchers are a suspect class when it comes to the prevalence of diabetes or any other disease is immaterial. If you’re the one suffering from a disease it doesn’t matter to you that millions of others are suffering from it right along with you. What matters to you is how the disease can be treated and none of us need a study conducted by the CDC or US Department of Health and Human Services to find that out. What we need to do is to get out butts – big or otherwise – out of The Chair and make our way to a clinician who can properly diagnose our individual situation and prescribe a specific course of treatment to deal with it. My colleague was right – every silver lining does have a dark cloud attached to it. But then, the opposite is also true. The only way to find either, though, is that you must first look in that general direction, and that requires opening your eyes. When it comes to the diseases of dispatching, we need to open them now!
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.