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.
Although this research demonstrates scientific consequences to chronic stress, all it takes is a look around a dispatch center to see people aged beyond their years. The amount of time required for young hires to get to retirement (I also wonder how lack of maturity in addition to chronic stress adds to aging) or the advanced age needed to reach retirement for older hires to meet the Rule of 80 is a huge concern for public safety telecommunications operators. I believe it’s a safety issue for the officers in the field and citizens. I believe these first first responders should have retirement plans similar to officers, such as 20 or 25 and out. It makes more sense. After all, if a budget analyst falls asleep at his desk, it’s really not that big of a deal. Paperwork is not going to be harmed. If a dispatcher falls asleep or can’t hear or can’t see well, it is a big deal. People could get hurt. People could die. Granted some people deal with stress better than others and the neurobiological research has shown that a person’s coping ability affects positively the shortening of telomeres. In essence, the stress of the job doesn’t age them faster. In my experience, it seems to be about half and half with those that cope and age well and those that fall asleep at the console.
On a lighter note, maybe, no one wants to sit through ten hours listening to a grating, scratchy, been smoking for 30 years voice telling them where to go at a rate that seems better suited to a shuffle board deck than a dispatch floor. That alone is worth fighting for the option of a 20 year retirement.
About The Author:
Michelle Perin has been a freelance writer since 2000. Her credits include Law Enforcement Technology, Police, Law and Order, Police Times, Beyond the Badge, Michigan State Trooper, Michigan Snowmobiler Magazine and Chief of Police. She writes two columns a month for Officer.com. Michelle worked for the Phoenix (AZ) Police Department for almost eight years. In December 2010, she earned her Master’s degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Indiana State University. Currently, Michelle works as the Administrative Coordinator at Jasper Mountain a residential psychiatric facility for children. In her spare time, she enjoys being the fundraising coordinator for the Lane Area Ferret Shelter & Rescue, playing her bass, working on her young adult novel Desert Ice and raising her two sons in a small town in Oregon.