Friday, January 28, 2011

Night Dispatch

One of the hardest parts of my job supervising a night shift in dispatch is the fact that most people don't like to work nights. Frankly I find it odd because I love working nights; I love the hours, I enjoy running the communications center when no one else is in the building and the calls we get at night tend to be fewer in number but much more serious or interesting depending on your point of view. The fact remains that people come and go on my shift and it's much harder to keep a core group of three dispatchers working together over time, at night. It is, I guess the relationship thing. In this photo we see not a dispatcher but a husband. Yeyo, as he's known is Belen's husband and when she comes to nights to help out for a few weeks he slips into the Comm Center and hangs with his wife. He is so unobtrusive and his wife enjoys having him so much I have no objections to his visits. The paradox is that working at night is so much easier. During the day dispatchers field hundreds of purely administrative calls. The police department has about one hundred officers and two dozen support staff and as in any city department the phones ring for all the mundane reasons that phones ring in offices. Vendors need to talk to the quartermaster, citizens want to speak to the Chief, officials need to contact officers, civic groups call requesting assorted help. And from time to time, there are actual police related incidents. At night by contrast the Detective Bureau is closed, human resources (known in the Police Department as Special Services) is closed. Records and Property downstairs are closed and because we don't have a desk sergeant at the door to greet the public the only occupants of the building during the night are the Sergeant who is the Watch Commander and is occasionally downstairs filing paperwork in his office and the three dispatchers upstairs. Here's Belen on the Fire/Rescue position which also answers admin and 9-1-1 calls.
During the course of a year our Comm Center handles about 180,000 calls for service. Of the three dispatchers on duty only two answer phones while the third Communications Officer operates the main police radio channel, dispatching the officers to calls and making sure everyone on the road is in contact at all times and safe. We currently have two open positions for extra day shift call takers which would give us four dispatchers by day and three by night if we were at full capacity. But we never are, so we make do with lots of overtime and long hours. We are all trained on all positions so if one wants to work a particular position during a shift the clever move is to arrive early, well before shift change at 6pm or 6am, and take the position you prefer. I like Channel One, the main police channel because that puts me in control of the dispatching which I enjoy most as opposed to call taking or checking drivers' licenses. On Channel One I am trying to figure out who to send where all night, in the manner of a police chess game with the city as my board. Nick is seen here on a slow night on Channel One.
Because I'm the shift supervisor (I've been here six and a half years) I also train people when we get new people in the room. I have a rather fearsome reputation for being a stickler for details and insisting on having the details done right so people tend to come to my shift with a rather scared look in their eyes. What actually ends up happening is that with intense and comprehensive training I find new dispatchers take to the floor by themselves with more confidence and integrate better with those already trained. On the other hand it takes a lot of effort to keep nagging a new dispatcher with all the nuances of an impossibly multi-tasked job. We do our best. Karl has been learning Channel Two with me. This channel answers phones but also checks driver's licenses and vehicle information. Officers have in-car computers but most of the time they prefer to have us fiddle with our computer while they keep an eye on the suspect. This is the position that checks if you have a warrant as you sit in your car by the side of the road all lit up wondering why it's taking so long for us to find out you are an upstanding citizen with a valid driver's license. Channel Two also enters stolen items into the national crime computer and checks with other states and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for warrants outside Florida. Karl has been doing well learning to read the paperwork and spotting what we call "hits" when a warrant comes back on a driver's license check.We work two nights on and two nights off and every other Saturday/Sunday/Monday. I find the schedule to be easy and the work to be enjoyable on the whole. At 53 I am the oldest of the dozen dispatchers in our Communications Center and my colleagues are in their 20s or 30s so I get a window on the younger generation's issues. During our down time I get to peruse that window on the world called the Web and by 6 in the morning I am ready to jump on the Bonneville and ride 35 minutes home through the cool winter air. It's a great life and it never ceases to amaze me that we hardly seem to suffer the slightest of budgetary inconveniences while police departments elsewhere in the country are being torn to shreds by budgetary failures. In dispatch we have minimum staffing requirements so our overtime is guaranteed as long as we don't have full staffing- and that's something I've hardly ever seen except for a few weeks at a time- then someone always quits for some reason and we are back to overtime. It takes a particular kind of person to be a dispatcher and people burn out in a job that deals with death and mayhem and angry abusive callers night after night. Not me, I'm still having a blast despite the rather lurid nature of some of the calls. I think this is the best job I ever had in terms of hours and benefits and the simple fact that when the shift is done, it's done and there's no homework. I never expected to last this long and with an economic depression sweeping the country I feel luckier than ever to be here.

Sometimes people come to dispatch as a step on the path to becoming a sworn police officer. I have no such ambitions, as I am not really very keen on dealing with all the complexity of meeting people on the streets, wearing a 20 pound gun belt and spending untold hours in the gloom of the county jail writing arrest affidavits. Paperwork is a big part of being an officer and being in the public eye is another drawback. We dispatchers come and go unseen and unnoticed for the most part. I rarely have to go to court to testify as all my testimony is on phone and radio tapes and in computer records.

This weekend is an off weekend, so after I get home this morning at 6, I will walk Cheyenne, fall into bed and wake up at lunch time. Then I'll be back to a normal sleep schedule with no more work until Tuesday evening at 10pm for the weekly short shift of just four hours (three twelve hour shifts and a four hour shift total 40 hours a week, Monday to Monday). Wednesday I work 12 hours then I'm off till Saturday evening unless I want overtime. Not a bad schedule every other week (the opposite week I work six nights!). I wonder how long this can last in the face of the budget madness sweeping the rest of the country? Long live Key West PD.

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