All Trouble, All the Time: I Invent the Blog

by pjmcbride

PBCFR Dispatch

PBCFR Dispatch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

WARNING: THIS POST IS VERY LENGTHY, AND NOT ALWAYS FUNNY. In fact, if you’re not particularly interested in Central Dispatch stuff, you might wish to skip it.

I promised, or threatened, to continue the story of the founding of Central Dispatch, so here goes, ready or not. I’m not sure that I’m ready.

That link, which I hope works correctly (you wouldn’t think I regularly work with four or more computer screens in front of me, would you?) is a cleaned-up version of the transition, appearing almost 22 years after the fact. Note the tone of the headline, implying that everything would be great if it weren’t for those craven resisters of change. Now I will give you the dirtied-up version. Let’s see if I can still get myself in trouble, all these years after the fact.

Disclaimer: At various points in this narrative, I will be sounding all compassionate and sympathetic and stuff. I was not that way at the time. I was a young hotshot, and scornful of those who were not.

First, I apologize for giving you a distorted view of my professional background. It is true that my first couple jobs involved writing, and an assortment of odd (and in some cases very odd) jobs followed them. But my “adult” career has always been in the public sector, starting with the Recorder of Deeds office in St Louis County, followed by the court clerk’s office in Boone County, Missouri. (Both of those are worthy of their own blog entries, which they may in due time receive–government work is weirder than most people imagine.) So, when I settled down in my current location with Rom, it was natural to apply at the Civic Center. I had trepidations about signing on with Police Records, but it promised to be more interesting than your usual clerical job, and so it proved to be. When the opening in Radio came up (replacing someone who’d, well, fled the state to avoid paying her debts, if I remember correctly), I gathered my courage–the job seemed cool (and it is!), it paid more (especially since it includes all the overtime you can eat), and, most importantly, the union would hold my old job open for the few weeks it would hopefully take to see if I would work out. (It really took about a year before I felt I knew what I was doing, but I quickly learned how to bluff my way through situations, which is actually an important skill for this job.)

{Quit writing your autobiography and get to the point! they mutter.}

ANYWAY, pretty much from the time I started, they were talking about combining the various dispatch departments, but I was by now familiar with the pace of change in local governments, and figured they’d eventually lose interest and wander away. Instead, they started by removing most of the officers, because, hey, civilians can be paid less! (There is, by the way, nothing like that rationale for cultivating good morale and professionalism in the group of paid-less people.) (Of course, to be reasonable, it does allow police officers to be used to best advantage, doing, y’know, police work.) Thereby I acquired a great deal of seniority all of a sudden. I then promptly lost it again when they combined us with the fire department dispatchers, since the fire department figured out the money-saving civilian strategy before the police department did. This combining supposedly took place in the name of the great god Efficiency, which, however, is often a cover-up for the more questionable strategy of Computers Allow Us To Do Something, Therefore We Should Do It. This is what gives us alarm company call centers in India, who have no common-sense experience of where things are located in Indiana. And lest we think, We work for the city/county, at least they can’t outsource our jobs–it has been mentioned, in the questionable spirit referred to above, Why not a single 911 center for the entire state? (And if anyone is wanting to edge me out–hey, everyone is, since I’m at the top of the seniority heap now–that’s all they need to do. Say all 911 personnel have to transfer to the new center in the state capital, and I’ll retire first and figure out if I can afford it later. Maybe I’ll take up writing for a living.)

{Do you plan on being entertaining anytime soon? they say.}

ANNNYWAYYYY, there was a lot of unsettled resentment floating around. The fire dispatchers were dismayed at being forced into a job with a much bigger workload than they were accustomed to, because no matter how you slice it (or who you consider slicing to get around it), there are lots more police runs than fire runs. And there are more city police runs than county ones, so the sheriff’s department felt left out in the planning. And the police officers felt like we were deserting them by moving out of HQ to our own new building, and some of them thought we had wanted this change, and they got kind of resentful (OK, not just “kind of”) until we were able to corner them (and it’s hard to corner a cop) and tell them otherwise.

So. As if to prove that it really is all about me, the department got its first computers on my birthday in 1990. And I discovered the wonder of email. I can complain to my colleagues when they’re not even here! Or even when they are here, without being told by a supervisor that there’s no use complaining, because it won’t change anything! I took to complaining regularly and at length to some half-dozen companions, and since I am an observer of absurdity, and there was plenty of it in evidence, I was often humorous {Really? Do tell, they say, squirming and looking at the clock}, and these missives became popular. (And all too frequently printed up for later use and then left on the printer for possible discovery by management, which would have led me to nail-biting if I weren’t so vain about my hands.)

I called it Crisis in Progress, after a sentiment on a refrigerator magnet I found at a truck stop on the way to IDACS certification that year. And it was an accurate title, because the director they hired for the new consolidated department (I’ll call him CKC, lest he sue me–although truth is defense against libel, isn’t it? Anyone?) was, shall we say, not good with people, and he drenched an already-flammable situation with gasoline, and then aimed a blowtorch at it.

It wasn’t that CKC was anti-union, although he was that. But he thought that he could simply ignore the union and deal with us however he chose. No crackbrained scheme was too absurd to hand down, prefaced with “By the authority vested in me as Director of Central Dispatch…” We got so used to seeing this on department memos that “By the authority vested in me” became a surreptitious catchphrase. Pretty much everything was surreptitious in those days. I felt like I was leading a resistance movement, or at least giving voice to one.

By The Authority Vested In Him…

–No one was allowed to leave the property on breaks, lest we be needed suddenly. (I used to sit across the street defiantly. Childish, yeah.)

–Uniforms would be required. (Until the union pointed out the city would be required to pay for them.) Supervisors wouldn’t have to wear uniforms. And speaking of which,

–A new non-union supervisory staff was instituted. (Which remains with us to this day. I’m not sure if this turned out to be a plus or a minus in the long run. Weirdly, our original system was that the dispatcher with the most seniority working was the supervisor on that shift that day, which led, you guessed it, to Your Humble Narrator being in charge on occasion.)

–Peons had to wear headsets, supervisors did not. (Our phone system at the time could be used either way, and, you guessed it, I refused to wear a headset. I’m sure supervisors used to wish beating me was allowed. All things considered, I’m kind of surprised CKC didn’t suggest it.)

–Experimental schedules!–the bane of many dispatch departments. How about half the employees working Sun-Mon-Tue-Wed, and the other half working Wed-Thur-Fri-Sat? Since the week can’t be neatly divided in half, you can imagine what a joke Wednesdays were. There weren’t enough chairs for everyone.

–No one was allowed to get drunk on their days off, in case we were needed suddenly. I am not making that up. (I probably drank more at this time in my life than at any time since my first attempt at college, and I wasn’t the only one.) The union pointed out that this was equivalent to being on call, and would require additional compensation, so it was quietly dropped. Especially when it was pointed out that the Director took other Important People out for nights on the town regularly.

–It was not their responsibility to call and tell us we were needed for overtime; it was our responsibility to call in and see if we were needed. And how does that work out, exactly? “Hi, do you need me for overtime now?” Thirty seconds later…”How about now?” Similarly, we were supposed to call in sick to our own supervisor, not the one working when we called in. This was before cell phones, remember.

Most of these proposals were discarded when they proved unworkable, but there were always more where those came from.


…I’m pretty sure that was the title of a Crisis in Progress post. Actually, CIP was usually referred to simply as The Newsletter. Our email program only allowed 10 names in the address field, and people kept asking to be added to my list, putting me in the Very Weird Indeed position of seeming to be deciding who the cool people were, since I couldn’t include everyone. (A plain-spoken former co-worker who returned at this time–why? one has to wonder–said, “I come back and you’re popular?”) A supervisor asked, “Would you like us to make a group list for you?” which I nervously refused, since I wouldn’t know who They might choose to include. (This was not unbounded paranoia, as it turned out. The office manager was mistakenly included in the union employee mail list, and then somehow never got removed.) I got a lot more nervous when CKC himself approached me, smiling, and said, “Your newsletter has quite a following! Why not send it to the entire staff?” Why not, indeed? I can’t remember what stammering response I must have come up with, but I bet the look on my face was priceless.

So how was this situation resolved? He made the Wrong People mad. (Hint: The dispatchers were not the Wrong People.) One of the new policies was that, on every 911 hangup, we had to send a police car, a fire truck, and an ambulance, just in case, instead of just a police car to investigate. The police chief heard all this apparatus being dispatched on the radio one day, and said, “Whose policy is this?” (This may have been the only rhetorical question ever asked on the air.) I think more critical attention was paid to the situation after that. The actual cause of CKC’s dismissal was that he said a bad word on the air, but others have done that (Not me! Not me!) and not gotten fired, so….

I kept a scrapbook of all the newspaper articles reporting on our problems. This led to my being sort-of-appointed to keep the “official” scrapbook of our congratulatory publicity (appointed by someone who didn’t know why I’d chosen the articles I already had). I wish I had both sets of articles still, but I don’t know what happened to them. Surely I wouldn’t have discarded them, but I don’t remember giving them to someone else. Maybe the Baby Corn took them.

FanBase, please forgive me. I knew this would be long, but I had no idea how long.