Sunday, July 8, 2012

Formaldehyde, Mice and OSHA: The joys of dispatch centers.

Some of the places I've worked in would make Dracula's Castle look like a five-star hotel.

Which Communications Center would you prefer? A nice wide open room where consoles built with dispatchers in mind have individually-controlled lights and wall is broken up with windows to the outside. Or, a dank, crowded, & windowless room, where consoles pick up every noise from the background and the room hasn't been cleaned since the Johnson Administration?

Doesn't take a second-generation Mensa member to pick the preferred dispatch center. Sadly, far too many of us have worked in the nastier of the two rooms.

The places we put up with for the sake of doing our jobs...

I swear the first company I worked for in Los Angeles was the inspiration for the cult film, "Mother, Juggs, and Speed'. How can I say that with a straight face? let's start with the owners. a husband & wife team who ran the company out of an apartment complex they managed (for a steady paycheck to supplement their income). He would swear he never drank, yet he downed a bottle of NyQuil every night. The married secretary was having an affair with one of the EMT's and the dispatcher had no clue what she was doing, treating the microphone as a telephone.

The office was in Hawthorne but we'd accept calls anywhere in LA County. It was nothing to roll code 3 for twenty minutes to an address in the San Fernando Valley, taking city streets to avoid the freeway congestion. Driver's took the rigs home after 1700 hours. The phones were forwarded to the owners home phone who would call the driver and then the partner. Pay started when we received the call, and ended after the patient was dropped off. I've mentioned this company before. I learned dispatching at this agency, to cover for breaks and vacations. The front officer doubled as the 'dispatch' station.

The next place was another mom & pop company in a small city in LA County. This place had a free-standing dispatch. They were in process of converting to CAD when I started, using paper logs and the computer. My family hated the area and commute to this high incident area. I considered getting a handgun to keep with me, but a job at an agency closer to home negated the idea.

A position dispatching full-time, with hopes of moving to an EMT slot, landed me at an agency who ran an ambulance company out of the main mortuary. The dispatch was based in the front office of the mortuary building during the week and in a small room of a back building after hours and weekends. A strict dress code was enforced during the week, but after hours that code was relaxed. Business attire was expected for men and women (jacket & ties for the guys while dresses or skirts & blouses were the options for women). We were allowed to wear jeans & t-shirts when working in the back room center.

Have you any idea what the combination of formaldehyde and flowers smell like? Spend a little time, say the length of time it takes to sit through a funeral or memorial service and you probably won't notice it. Day after day? Yeah, maybe it was just me, but I noticed a distinct odor lingering long after the guests left.

Another ambulance company I worked had two different dispatch centers during my total tenure time. The first one was in the basement. Some of you might recognize this place just from the description. The  basement had a dutch door which opened in to a very short hall. The floors were thick with decades of dirt and bio hazards tracked in from crew's boots. Crumbs from dispatcher's meals supplied an ongoing buffet to the countless pests; the rodents were so plentiful a cat was acquired for pest control. creepy-crawlies lived high up in the corners of the ceiling. Scrubs were optional attire for this dungeon. Eventually management agreed this cave was a health hazard and dispatch was moved to a different building on the property.

We thought about calling the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA) folks to do an inspection, but reconsidered. What if the OHSA people became sick? They might call in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) because of the hazardous waste materials on the floor. The EPA would call in the Center for Diesease Control (CDC) since folks became sick. Don't forget to call Chemtrec, so they could send an expert out to help identify the balls of colored subtance on the floor. The Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA) would get involved due to the amount of personnel involved. Wait, I almost forgot: the City, County, and State folks would get their feelings involved if they hadn't been invited to this party. An incident of this over-blown magnitude, a red alert, would need the local police & fire on hand. Let's not forget the news media.

This all could have been avoided had someone arranged for the room to get cleaned once a week.

Mice seemed to be a common theme for dispatch. Another center I worked in also had mice. The room was in the middle, so to speak, of the building. I was told the center had no windows purposely; the 'civilian' people couldn't attempt to sabotage dispatch if they couldn't find it. The false floor tiles were carpeted, as were the walls. It may have appeared nice in the 40's, but it didn't get cleaned as far as I knew. The false 60's wood-grain wall partitions was badly dated, with the Plexiglas scratched and chronically dirty.

What really made the dispatch gross was the resident mice. I'd experienced one of the furballs run over my shoe while I was taking a call one night. I felt the sensation and looked down, only to see a tail disappearing under my console desk. We had traps set up through-out the room. Arguments ensued when we heard the snap, knowing a mouse had been caught in one of our traps. No one wanted to dig around between equipment to retrieve the trap, much less dispose of the carcass. Over the shift the verbal sparring continued until one brave soul finally gave in and found the trap, with the now stiff, and sometimes bloody, remains. He, or she, would stomp out of dispatch and head out ot the bathroom, where the tiny carcass would be placed in a trashcan. The trap would then be reset in the same spot as before.

What really took the cake? One shift a small fire broke out in a room across the hall from dispatch in another room. The hallway quickly filled with smoke, setting off fire alarms. Almost everybody in the building was evacuated...I say almost because the Communications Center staff was left to do their jobs. Who else was going to call out the firefighters? Who else was going to monitor the fire personnel over the radio why they fought the fire - IN OUR OWN BUILDING! Firefighters arrived wearing scott packs, while the dispatchers kept on doing their jobs, not even being offered any protection. The smell of smoke lingered for a while after that incident.

Another OSHA situation?

I worked at one place where the floor was so nasty the tiles were black. Cockroaches and ants were drawing paychecks. When a national organization announced it was going to do an inspection, our department was scheduled to be cleaned. I watched as the janitor worked on the floor. An ocean of filth was lifted by the industrial strength cleanser, the fumes from the cleanser made me light-headed but I couldn't leave my radio. The river of sludge should have been sucked in to a container and sent to the military as a Weapon of Mass Destruction. The floor stayed clean for a couple of days, long enough for the inspection, before it went back to the way it was.

Yeah, it was that bad. Even Chemtrec would turf out this job.

Where I'm at now is okay. The janitors clean on a regular basis. My coworkers claim mice have been seen in the back office, but I've not seen any. What is it with mice and dispatch centers? Nevada is a dusty state, and no matter where I go, you just can't escape the junk in the air. Same with the static.

At least my feet don't stick to the floor, I can breathe the air, and there are windows (CLEAN windows) to look out of, where depending on the day & season, I can see the Dept. of Agriculture's horses & cattle in the field, the storm clouds, the snow flurries, or our personnel in the parking lot.

Hey, it really is the simple things in life.

Stay safe out there.

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