Recently I was asked by a friend’s daughter if I would be a reference for her in the new job she was pursuing. I met her dad in 1999, when he started working with me as a police telecommunications operator. She was about ten years old at the time. She used to play in the back yard with my sons. I still have pictures of all three of them covered in mud during a suburban Arizonan iconic event called the “let’s take a hose and turn our entire backyard, which consists of dirt, into a mud hole.” I watched as she went through her turbulent teens and had many, many conversations on the floor with her dad about the challenges of raising children. Now, she’s all grown up with two children of her own and she needs my reference for a job. It wasn’t her request for a job reference that got me thinking; it was the job she was applying for. She wanted to follow in the footsteps of her father and me and become a dispatcher/9-1-1 operator. She certainly wasn’t the first, second or even third generation who have heeded the call of being the first first responder putting on a headset and dedicating themselves to serving citizens and public safety professionals and she won’t be the last. She was the first that I had watched grow up and it made me start thinking to myself, “What would I feel if my children wanted to do this job? Would I support it? Would I not? Would it be a good fit? Would I want this life for my child?” After contemplating this for a while, I came to several conclusions.
Second Shift Baby
One of the hardest things about being a public safety telecommunications operator is the hours. Due to the work being 24/7 365 days a year, the dream of a nice Monday through Friday, 8am to 5pm with an hour lunch is probably never going to happen. If it does, it will be long after your parents have retired and your children are grown. In the beginning, you will have either swing or graveyard shifts with Wednesday/Thursday off. When the calendar goes around for holiday time off, you won’t even see it until every spot has a name on it and in the case of a large department the name will be followed by an employee number hundreds below yours. Birthdays and anniversaries are all date-negotiable. They happen whenever you have some time off. This is only the regularly scheduled shifts and doesn’t even count the mandatory overtime and standby that comes with the position. Despite all of this, the child of a dispatcher probably won’t even be fazed. After all, they were raised like this. After my first son was born, I worked second shift (so did my police officer husband). It was a great shift. He was a second shift baby. It wasn’t until he reached school age that our family’s habit of going to bed at 2am and waking up at 10am didn’t work out well. Now that he is no longer a minor, his natural proclivity is to keep a second shift schedule and celebrations can happen whenever. Great dispatcher material.
Another basic fact of being a dispatcher/9-1-1 operator is the stress. You spend your day tethered to a desk trying your best to handle crises with only your voice. People are crying, screaming, cussing and exhibiting every emotion in the rainbow of human nature and that’s just the officers you’re working with. The citizens are a whole other basket of fun. No matter how good you are at your job, how much training or how long you’ve been there, you still have a physiological response when the phone beeps in your ear and before you can even say, “9-1-1, where is your emergency,” there are blood curdling screams or when your frequency goes live and an officer is screaming for help. Your blood pressure goes up, your heart starts pounding and your breathing becomes shallow. Your body reacts to the situation. It goes into survival mode and no matter how well you handle the stress of the job, keeping your voice calm and working effectively and efficiently, your body still has the imprint of the chaos in its cells. And, you take those cells home with you. It’s what you do with those cells that makes the difference between those who successfully and healthily deal with the inevitable stress and those who don’t. If you are one of those who have modeled good stress relief for your child, including exercise, journaling, meditation, spending time with family and friends, etc., your child will go into the job able to cope as well. If not, maybe this isn’t the right field for either of you.
When I first started as a 9-1-1 operator in the late nineties, it was considered a very secure job. It had great benefits, stability and the opportunity to work as much overtime as I wanted. The retirement, vacation and health benefits were amazing. It was the kind of job that you kept for a life-time not only because you loved it but because you would be taken care of when your time on the job was complete. Many people encouraged their now adult children to apply because of the stability and the benefits. Then everything seemed to change. Now, everyone I look I see public safety pensions being revoked, employees being stripped of their benefits and being forced to take unpaid time off, all in the name of balancing budgets. Two decades ago, the community wouldn’t put up with fixing the mistakes of incompetent government officials on the backs of public servants. I don’t know what happened but from Phoenix to Detroit I see the same thing. People who gave their lives to the community are losing out. If it continues down this path, that second generation will be discouraged from applying by parents who have no idea when or if they will ever be able to retire without living in poverty.
So all said and done, I think that being a public safety telecommunications operator is one of the most honorable jobs I’ve ever done. I’m proud to say that I served my community alongside other similarly dedicated people who continue to put their lives on the line to make the world a little safety and a lot more pleasant. Even with the issues many public servants are facing, I still think it’s a great job. Because of this, I’m happy to be a reference for my friend’s daughter. I pray that she never comes into a parental/professional conflict with her dad who is a communications supervisor and that she has a long happy career. I hope that for all the telecommunications children.