I came off my break around noon. Tucking the remainder of my lunch back into my dispatch bag, I headed into the radio room. I walked up behind the dispatcher sitting at the console of our South Side precinct. She was relief rotating from console to console. She was one of our older dispatchers. She was a large woman who I believed was in her early sixties but could be wrong due to the physical toll this job took on some people and my twenty year old perceptions of age. I had overheard her talking about how she had three more years before she could retire, which I thought was amazing since she seemed so old. I stood behind her for a minute or so looking over the screen getting an idea of what had transpired while I was at lunch and seeing what type and the amount of calls waiting for me when I sat back down. When I had left only a few priority three calls (our lowest priority) existed. Now there were at least a dozen calls including several priority twos.
Our officers must have gotten busy while I was away. Maybe something exciting had happened. Glancing at the near immobile body of my relief I dismissed that thought. I looked over at the other monitor, the one that listed the available officers and saw there was a bunch. Why were they just sitting there? The icon on the screen advising incoming CAD messages was flashing. Just then, the red light that shines letting us know that an officer is clearing over the radio started flashing too…and flashing…and flashing. I looked back at my relief who had her eyes closed and her hands folded over her ample lap. The faint sound of her snoring reached me as my eyes continued to watch the red light flash. Snapping into action, I shoved my headset cord into the port and the sound of officers’ voices flooded my ears. “424B, for info. 424B to dispatch. 424B.” I nudged my relief who finally opened her eyes. Without acknowledging the lack of her diligence (or any movement at all) she pulled out her headset, shoved herself up out of her chair and walked away. “Damn, Rule of 80,” I thought to myself quickly trying to return order to my frequency.
Rule of 80
One of the biggest frustrations expressed by public safety telecommunications operators is the common retirement system: Rule of 80. Basically, what this means is that Years of Service plus the Age Eligible must equal 80 before a person can retire with full benefits. For example, if a dispatcher joins the department at 18 they will be eligible to retire at 49 having put in 31 years of service. If they are 30 when they start, they will be eligible at 55 with 25 years of service. Finally, an employee who begins work at 40 will put in 20 years of service and be eligible to retire at 60. Many departments have a “cut-off” age of 40 for hiring general employees. Although the Rule of 80 makes sense for many government employees, for example sanitary receptionists, it can be a dangerous and detrimental requirement for those who work in a profession with the type of stress and the need for alert physical and mental ability required to be a safe and competent public safety telecommunications operator.
Stress and Aging
Nobody wants to leave the department prior to getting full benefits. But looking around radio/9-1-1 rooms across the country, we see those who are just not fit to be in the position anymore. Many are tired or sick, losing eyesight or hearing, or have a myriad of other age-related health issues that are accelerated due to the stress and sedentary nature of this work. Research done by Nobel Prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD and UCSF scientist Elissa Epel, PhD supports chronic stress speeds up the aging process. Stress reaches into cells creating havoc with DNA and causing damage. Stress shortens telomeres (the part of DNA that protects it and controls cell aging). When telomeres are shorted, the cell frays as it divides and eventually dies. This research shows how chronic stress accelerates the aging process and leads to degenerative diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some cancers, depression, osteoarthritis and osteoporosis. It also leads to loss of eyesight, hearing and muscle strength.