Sunday, August 26, 2012

Sleeping And Working

Outside the police station people are doing the hunkering thing. Ask anyone who prefers to stay at home during a storm and they will tell you they are going to "hunker down." This usually involves getting together with friends and pets and drink is frequently taken in convivial darkness. Those of us who are employed in what they used to call reserved occupations have other things on our minds.

For most people "work" is an activity undertaken in a burst of energy for a limited amount of time, then they go home and do other things. For emergency services, work consists of a great deal of routine mixed with sudden, frequently terrifying bursts of insanely complicated activity. For a dispatcher the tedium of sitting up all night is never relieved by a burst of sudden activity away from the desk and the bank of five computer screens. We work twelve hour shifts and one of my first questions for a prospective trainee is "Can you sit still for twelve hours and not go mad?" I can train anyone to answer the phone and talk on the radio who has a capacity for multi-tasking but I can't train anyone to sit still. During a hurricane the situation is even more dramatic. After twelve hours of fielding calls from anxious citizens or talking on the police radio directing officers in trying circumstances, one has nowhere to go but to bed close by as day shift takes over. The comforts of home are replaced by...

If it looks like a cell that's because it's the closest thing to a cell the police station has. It's where prisoners in serious cases are brought for interviews by detectives before they are released or taken to the county jail on Stock Island. It makes a useful bedroom for an old fart like me who prefers solitude to shared sleeping spaces with the younger more active dispatchers.

All the comforts of home drawn from a suitcase packed by my wife and coffee and sandwiches from the improvised mess in the corridor. A huge generator powers the building and the fire station next door when the power goes out. Showers, not always hot, are downstairs next to the locker room where there's nothing quite like reaching for a dry towel while naked yet surrounded by armed men in black battledress uniforms getting ready to do battle with Mother Nature. Never in my wildest dreams...

I have been through this many times in my eight years here, and I have to say I have enjoyed the past few hurricane free years. But it's part of the job and I like working in a place where everyone knows what to do, where the drama is outside the walls and I get the opportunity to do something useful from time to time. I was astonished to discover that I am the only night shift dispatcher with hurricane experience. I worked my first in July 2004 shortly after I was hired and since then I've lost count of the number of times I've slept in this monastic cell. I hope tomorrow will be the last time for a while.

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