Friday, November 16, 2012

Self Control, Traffic Control, And A Flat Tire

Driving up Flagler Avenue a few minutes before six in the morning yesterday I was congratulating myself on getting off work a few minutes early, thanks to prompt day shift relief, when I saw a bundle of scrap in my lane. The trash moved and there was a cyclist revealed, lying in the right hand lane of Flagler, his helmeted head about to be run down by my car. I figured I should stop and help so I did. The State of Florida considers me a First Responder, even though I don't, so I figured I should see what I could do. At least I know how to make a 911 call properly. I answer dozens every night at work.

The beauty of my job is that while I work in a police station, with police officers, I aren't one. I am a civilian and as such all the work I do in dispatch is directed by sworn police officers who are on the streets dealing hands on with the issues that are called in to us by people in the city. All my authority to make phone calls representing the Key West Police Department, all the talk on the police radio and all the access I have to citizens' private information databases comes through the authority of working police officers. They ask me to check a vehicle tag or a driver's license or to verify an arrest warrant on a person, I find the answers and they make the arrest, or write the ticket or issue the warning. When I leave the police station at six in the morning, or thereabouts, I revert to civilian status and I have no business minding anyone's police business. It is much better, believe me, than being a sworn officer. They make half a dozen more dollars an hour than me but they are technically never off duty.

The other little understood part of my job is how limited it is. People think that I know what's going on all night long. What we get in dispatch is a phone call, frequently incoherent, from someone whose life just went down the shitter in some form or another and the caller may be inebriated, incoherent through pain or illness or debilitation, angry beyond belief or shocked by sudden overwhelming disaster. The conversation frequently isn't very enlightening or may not be too accurate much of the time, and what happens after we send help is never revealed to us. The callers who are calm and precise and have a clear understanding of what they need from us are rare at two o'clock in the morning. Night shift brings its own challenges in dispatch. After help is sent we pretty much forget what we just heard as, especially in busy winter tourist season calls pile up and there are more crises to control. And the officers who did respond rarely fill us in on the details of what we sent them to sort out. Most of what I know comes from the crime report in the newspaper, just like everyone else. That's my job so yesterday morning when I found myself actually at an incident I was a bit surprised. I like the distance dispatching puts between me and the noxious reality of lives gone wrong.

I covered the cyclist with my car's emergency flashers and illuminated his prone body with my headlights. His bicycle was of course on it's side with a couple of red tail lights flashing monotonously. He was dressed in those ridiculous spandex suits with a brightly colored helmet on his head, every inch a committed rider. He looked to be close to thirty and even seen upside down his clean shaven face reminded me strongly of my nephew in Asheville, himself a keen and competitve rider. He was lying on his back clutching his shoulder, wincing, but there was no blood or anything gruesome. Thank the gods for small mercies. He spoke to me so at least I didn't have to grovel on the rough roadway and apply my CPR training. I usually do CPR over the phone when I do it at all and it's a much better way, with no physical contact, having a friend or family member deal with the mucus blood and vomit. Doing it in person is a trial, though either way getting someone to breathe again is rewarding.

A couple of sentences, breathlessly delivered by the prone athlete, explained the situation and it appeared he was the victim of a hit-and-run. I called the office after I confirmed my location on Flagler, just as a breathless young woman ran up, tearful and said she hadn't seen him, looking hopefully at me as though I had a real badge. Not a hit and run I told the office, simply a Signal Four with injuries. It was a short call as I knew what to say and they knew who I was. The cyclist was trying to get up so I reassured him he wasn't going to get run over and told him to wait for the paramedics. He lay back and we listened to the unfortunate driver utter apologies to anyone who would listen. I felt bad for her but shit happens. Especially in the dark even though he had plenty of visible lights on his expensive roadster.

 

Normally I'd hang up at this point, send a fire truck and an ambulance while Nick or Fred sent a cop and we could get back to wondering where the answers to life's persistent questions are to be found. Here on the street there was no getting away and once again I thanked the gods I was a dispatcher in real life, working in an air conditioned office behind two locked doors. Somebody else should be the cop, not me! I am not a hands on kind of guy, nor do I like handguns Tazers or handcuffs. Well, handcuffs maybe...

So there I stood incandescent in the light of passing cars wearing my uniform of tan pants and a dark blue polo shirt with a large silver police badge sewn on the chest directing cars and reassuring the cyclist still lying on his back staring at the stars waiting for the ambulance, I was never so relieved as when I saw the blue lights approaching and the arrival of real police officers left me free to go home and hug my patient dog, who awaits my return every morning on the deck listening for the sound of the softly rumbling motorcycle. However my Triumph is in the shop getting maintained so now she has to listen for the ultra quiet scooter or the silent car. But my focus when I leave work is getting 27 miles home whatever I'm riding, not futzing around with fallen cyclists.

I thought my broken routine was repaired when I got home 15 minutes "late" and Cheyenne came bounding down to greet me. We pile into the car every morning after work and drive a short distance to Big Pine Key or North Ramrod and take a meandering walk in the cool of the dawn. Cheyenne sets the direction and pace when I park the car and we will be gone usually sixty to ninety minutes until her tongue is dangling and her pace slows. It is very relaxing for me to watch the sun come up while Cheyenne sticks her head in some improbable place looking for reeking treats.

My wife called me while we were walking the "Ramrod Pool," a failed housing development that left a deep accidental swimming hole cut into the coral rock. Cheyenne was trotting back and forth checking the progress of dogs who had visited this popular spot the previous day, I was reading the newspaper and all was right with the world. I try to take Cheyenne on a different walk each day to keep her interested and happy but this was the wrong day to worry about my dog. "I need you here" came the cry for help, " I've got a flat."

I have to confess, and I write this by way of apology to my wife, but I was pretty graceless as I groveled in the pearock and dirt, the very maneuver I had managed to avoid while dealing with the cyclist down an hour earlier, and got sandy spots on my trousers and pebbles pressing my knees as I fought the flat tire on her Sebring, inflated the spare doughnut with my portable pump I carry for just such emergencies and emptied the trunk of all her teaching aids and crap to find the jack buried deep in the bowels of her convertible. I swore a bit, in fact I swore enough to make a parrot blush but I got her on the road fast enough to not be late for the little dears in her classroom. My dog looked depressed so we went home, our walk ruined, me to a shower and bed, and she to a delicious piece of industrial strength Chinese jerky.

What a morning. It could have been a lot worse but that is what I generally say any day when I leave work with a trail of death, drunkeness, property destruction and arrests in my wake. Being a dispatcher is a powerful reminder every time I answer the phone that someone, indeed a lot of someones have it a lot worse than a delayed commute home, a broken walk or a stupid smelly dirty flat tire at an inconvenient hour.