How you respond to the stories of back in the day, will be reflected in your perspective of this article. Back in the day stories can be funny or boring, but regardless of how they are perceived, they are part of our history and molded us into who we have become.
Communicating in the communications center, many have said this is an area that needs improvement. In my past employment, it was a conversation we often had, almost in a joking tone, how ironic it is that the communicators struggle to fully communicate. Communication in public safety has long deep roots. The police whistle has its roots dating back to ancient China, where night watchmen would blow into the tops of acorns to alert the towns to invading Mongolians. In ancient Egypt, two blades of the papyrus plant along the Nile River were held together in between the palms of alert security guards. Blowing into the palms the papyrus leaves would make a loud vibrant sound communicating an alert.
The first documented form of communication for law enforcement when assistance was needed was to be dated to Old England where the constable carried a handbell or rattle, sometimes referred to as a ratchet. When he required assistance, he would sound the rattle to alert others in the area that he needed help. The origin of the rattle is not clear, but what has come to be known as the “Victorian Police Rattle” came into use sometime in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century. By the late 1800’s police officers were able to patrol in vehicles. Communication was still a challenge though and for officers to know if an assignment (call for service) had been received at headquarters, they would watch for a red signal light and when the light was on, that signaled an assignment was waiting at the station.
The Chicago Police were the first known to update their signal lights in 1870 to a call booth. These locations were locked and the officer would have a key and the situation would be relayed by the officer to headquarters via telegraph. In 1880, phones were added to the call booths. In 1928, the Detroit Police Department was the first known city to utilize radio communication. It wasn’t what we experience today, it was a one-way radio, meaning headquarters could talk to the officers but there was no communication back.
For people working in a PSAP, you may wonder if that technology is still being deployed when the officer does not respond to the call you gave out – and the public safety responders may wonder if you heard them when they called for dispatch with no acknowledgment. While we have modern equipment that allows for sending and receiving communications from each other, we sometimes miss the mark on communications when we try to get the other side of the mic’s attention and we hear… crickets. The radio progression was slow but steady and by 1960 handheld radios were introduced. Upgrading to radios was expensive and many agencies across the country were slow to change. One agency I worked for told me they used the light system on the side of the municipal building until the mid to late 1970s.
Phones were a little slower, one nation, one number, took many years to fully develop. When the 9-1-1 number was first tested in Haleyville, Alabama on February 16, 1968, it was big news, but expensive to implement. Prior to 9-1-1 people would often dial “0” for emergencies, I personally remember my mom calling “0” to report a large grass fire behind our home in the mid-1970s. Was also in the 1970s the 9-1-1 system was introduced nationwide in the United States as the emergency telephone number. It took almost another ten years to see 9-1-1 systems being implemented. This is where I started my career.
In 1983, 9-1-1 had not yet made it to the agency I worked for. Things were very different in the PSAP, communicating took on many forms. The Shift Commander “communicated” his favorite theme songs from Top Gun and Miami Vice, and eventually, Bad Boys made it on the list. He enjoyed music and it made us smile when it drifted out of the office.
In the early 80s incoming phone calls were made on a landline or pay phone, maps were only made of paper, and smoking was the thing to do. Walking into the dispatch center at the beginning of the shift was the same as walking into a blue hazy cloud with ashtrays conveniently located at every spot. At the end of your shift each day, the blue hazy cloud’s odor had attached itself to your clothes, hair, and skin. You drove home with red eyes from sitting in smoke for 8 (or more) hours and most had a strong desire to shower!
At the agency I worked for, calls for service were communicated from call-taker to dispatcher by writing the details out on card stock paper and then “transmitted” to the dispatcher with a conveyor belt that each desk was next to. The dispatchers sat behind a large radio counsel with French fry microphones assigning their officers to the calls. Each channel had six to ten officers at a minimum which doubled (or more) every weekend. I had been there about six months when I decided to try smoking, I liked the flavor of menthol and I bought my first pack of cigarettes. The first time I pulled them out and started to light up, the “dispatchers” sitting at the end of that converter belt and behind bulletproof glass stood up, put their cigarettes down, and joined in scolding me with the rest of the shift. I put the lighter and smokes back in my purse.
That lecture went on for the rest of the shift, so when I got to my home, I lit up my smoke probably in defiance! This little habit of lighting up when I got home went on for a little over two weeks, then I had to go buy my second pack of smokes. We all know those shifts when you feel like you’ve been hit by a bus, it was one of those shifts that changed my newly formed activity. I drove home after work that morning thinking wow, I really need a cigarette. The thought shocked me – WHAT – I NEED a cigarette?!
I realized that my fun little pastime was becoming a habit so I gave my new pack of cigarettes to my neighbor and never touched them again. Addictions scare me, we see the terrible impact an addiction can make on a person’s life as well as those around them, and I wanted nothing to do with that! But I kept my lighter.
Technology and communication methods seemed to change slowly in the 80s and 90s compared to the current day. On a particularly long night, as far on the other side of the spectrum as you can get from being busy, my friend (and co-conspirator… oh I mean co-worker) and I sat there. We communicated how bored we were, how slow it was, and that there were no hot calls to speed up the night. Working in call-taker positions that night, we collaborated and decided to create a hot call.
Remember, this was before 9-1-1, before computers with CAD, and before technology really took hold. The conveyor belt in the middle of the room had sides on it with the belt on the bottom and it carried calls for service to the dispatchers on the other side of the glass. When the call came in, we recorded the information for the call on the card and placed it, long side down, on the belt then pushed the foot pedal to work the belt.
When you had a hot call you might flick the short side of the card with a pen and it would speed up its journey to dispatch and hit the end of the belt with a loud “DING”. On this particular night, we put the card on the belt and lit it on fire (remember I saved my lighter), flicked it with our pen, and yelled out “HOT CALL COMING”. It was funny, it broke up the night and no damage was caused.
A prank like that may not be received with such humor in today’s PSAPs… mostly because you just can’t light a call on fire with a real flame. Eventually, smoking was banned and the blue haze went away. The smokers still smoked, only they had to go outside, which some of them did for 10 to 15 minutes every hour. There were times when the dispatchers who smoked would meet up with the officers who smoked and that 15 minutes would become 30.
Smoke breaks are still an issue for many in today’s businesses across the country. Surveys conducted show that the average smoker spends about 6 days a year on a work smoke break (USA Today 2018). I realized that I didn’t like smelling like smoke and breathing in blue haze fumes. Smokers may get more breaks but I wouldn’t want to go back to the blue haze, so it was not worth complaining about!
Many of the things from back in the day have changed for the better. The fairly recent acknowledgment of checking on each other or having a supervisor check on you after a rough call is a far cry from the words of yesteryear to “suck it up”. Now we have peer-to-peer support teams and the recognition that 9-1-1 personnel are first responders too, the FIRST, first responders. On the scene before the physical presence of a first responder arrives, the public safety Telecommunicators hear all and see all, and the stress of that is now acknowledged.
Yes, there are many stories from back in the day. Mostly fun memories, lifelong friendships, and some really entertaining tales of the past. We knew we were having fun and we knew we had rough days but we didn’t know how often we would say, “well – back when I was new we used to…”. I miss those fun days in the PSAP.
I am reminded of Jimmy Buffett’s song, Changes in Latitudes, “It’s these changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes, nothing remains quite the same, with all of our running and all of our cunning, If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane”. The future of the profession of public safety will continue to change and evolve so stay the course and keep on communicating and remember to laugh on your journey!
– Cherie Bartram, ENP, MM.